Sergio Brown of the Jacksonville Jaguars helps to coach a team of local school children in London during a promotional trip in July. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
In May 2013, Andrew Luck headlined an NFL UK fan forum held in a former theatre turned conference center that sits at the foot of the Thames in London. Over 4,000 fans applied for just 400 seats.
The night was a rousing success as Luck fielded questions that exhibited sophistication, passion and humor. For example, a man wearing a Luck jersey cheekily asked, “How does it feel to have replaced Curtis Painter?” Luck laughed as ubiquitous NFL UK presenter and MC for the night Neil Reynolds quickly moved on. The fans’ admiration for Luck was obvious, even though the room was a far cry from a uniformed collection of Colts fans that one would find at US fan event
Despite the fact that Luck’s jersey has been a top 20 best seller since the moment he was drafted, fans that night also came dressed as Brian Urlacher, Tony Romo, Ndamukong Suh and a multitude of others. In fact, all 32 NFL teams were represented in some fashion, illustrating a double-edged sword for the UK in its quest to build a UK fan base robust enough to warrant a permanent franchise.
Stuart Cant of Walsall has been a Bears fan since the 80s when William “The Refrigerator” Perry first graced his television. Cant is such a diehard that prior to becoming a father he took a yearly trip to see the Bears at Soldier Field. But he would only attend the games of a hypothetical London-based franchise if the opponent were Chicago.
“I believe many fans would follow the team as a second team,” Cant says. “But ultimately the NFL fans in the UK already support a team and have done so for many years.”
The challenge for NFL UK is clear. Continue to engage Cant and the other preexisting diehards while simultaneously proselytizing the NFL to an entire new generation of potential fans.
New stadium for a new team?
Roger Goodell goal of a London-based NFL franchise is well-known, but by no means is it a forgone conclusion. But the signs of success are increasingly there. The league will again play three games in London this season, but this year’s games are designed to mimic the ebbs and flows of a typical NFL schedule, beginning with the Jets-Dolphins on 4 October. The teams remain varied, of course, but home games in Week 4, Week 7 and Week 8 are spaced out in analogous fashion to a franchise’s home games, and to the public’s appetite to regularly attend games when they are not setup as a special event. All three games this year will start at 1.30pm UK time. Moving the kickoff times is a dramatic departure from the mostly previous 6pm UK kick-off times that were catered to US, not UK fans.
The most telling indicator of the NFL’s growth ambitions comes from the money pot known as an NFL television contract. Last year, Sky Sports extended their long-standing relationship with the NFL in the UK for another five years, and in 2015 will broadcast 80 games, including Monday Night Football for the first time, as well as its usual fare of the playoffs and Super Bowl. Terms of the contract have been kept under wraps, but it would be hard not to envision it a mutually profitable partnership.
Speculation that a franchise may be coming to the UK was further fueled in July this year, when Tottenham Hotspur announced that their new stadium, set to open in 2018, will also host NFL games. The stadium will host a minimum of two NFL games a season for 10 years and will be constructed specifically to accommodate an NFL team. Officials announced that the field would have a retractable grass surface with artificial turf underneath, reducing the time it will take to toggle between readying for soccer and NFL matches, and a stadium blueprint now reportedly includes locker rooms big enough for an NFL team’s 53-man roster. Seating capacity for the Spurs stadium is supposed to max out at a cozy NFL-sized 61,000, as opposed to the Wembley Stadium behemoth that seats 84,000 for NFL games.
But if diehards like Cant won’t purchase tickets for a London-based team, who exactly will fill those 61,000 seats.
While Goodell repeatedly expresses certainty in his desire to house a franchise in London, he tends to avoid specifics on the process to make that happen.
Building the foundation one fan at a time
The NFL UK managing director, Alistair Kirkwood, offers a more pragmatic approach. Kirkwood, who has been an NFL UK executive since 2000, places cultivating a new fan base atop his list of numerous duties.
According to Kirkwood, 3.1 million Britons now consider themselves NFL fans, based on a self-reported survey distributed in February. This dedication to the NFL can range from watching three games a year to spending 10 hours a day consuming league news.
Kirkwood believes that in order to warrant either an expansion franchise or be attractive enough for an existing team to consider relocation, the UK fan base needs to grow to 5.5 or 6 million. While Kirkwood clearly shares Goodell’s goal of a London-based franchise, he doesn’t spend much time looking ahead. That’s because his eye is on the process, adding one new fan at a time. The younger the better.
Kirkwood says the average age of a fan who attends NFL games at Wembley is 33, while the average age of an NFL fan in the UK is just 27. In contrast, the average NFL fan in the United States is 44.
“You’re going to appeal to someone who has more time on their hands, perhaps without familial commitments,” Kirkwood says. “And these people may be more open to sports and other things that help define you, where at 30 and beyond you may know what you like.”
Growth in the UK has truly been explosive - NFL UK counted 2.5 million fans as “avid” just two years ago – and the optics are increasingly stunning. A festival on Regent Street prior to each
International Series game regularly attracts huge crowds, and almost every game at Wembley has sold out, though one observer say fans tend to cheer with “polite applause” as opposed to the blown out vocal cords that goes with NFL crowds in the US. Kirkwood has also seen the benefit of celebrity advocates for the sport. Spurs and England striker Harry Kane is an unabashed Patriots fan. Kirkwood also points out that many rugby players are NFL fans – including World Cup winning captain martin Johnson – and love talking about it from a crossover perspective.
Kirkwood, who got his first job with the NFL after writing a league vice-president a note listing a Top Ten of things the league was doing wrong internationally and the remedies he could offer, probably has his pulse on the divergent fan base more than anyone.
“Everybody has a different story, Kirkwood says. “And truth is we have to get people to care about something they haven’t necessarily grown up in. Do people get into a sport because they follow a team first, or is it a player? What is it about the sport that has similarities to a sport they may like but also differences?”
The rise of the NFL in the UK.
To attract potential NFL fans, the UK office has offered a variety of experiences and educational elements catered to fans without roots in the sport. On the rudimentary level, the NFL UK’s official website offers a section devoted to learning the game. Beyond that, its social media arm periodically tweets out selections from the site’s “Get to Know” series, which features a slideshow with very benign information for absolute beginners. For example a “Get to Know the Green Bay Packers” photo gallery features such basic information as Lambeau Field being the team’s home and Aaron Rodgers being its quarterback.
The UK office has found much success with its unique fan forums that provide those in attendance a special connectivity to players not replicated in the United States. In March, Odell Beckham not only fielded questions from audience in London, he fielded their passes. These events typically include some element of Xs and Os, the complexity of which varies.
In a 2013 event held in Dublin that featured Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, Sky Sports analyst Jeff Reinebold utilized Rudolph to demonstrate in intricate, football language how a receiver can break away from a defender.
Reinebold, who coached the NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire in 1996 and is currently the special teams coordinator for the Hamilton Tiger Cats, joins Reynolds on Sky broadcasts and believes that television is still the best entry to NFL fandom. “The missionary work that goes into the game is so uniquely suited for television, Reinebold says. “Look at all the stuff around the game that makes it a spectacle.”
As the NFL UK fan base has grown, so too have Reinebold and Reynolds’ profiles. They co-host Inside the Huddle, the most listened to NFL podcast outside of the United States. They also don’t possess the typical talent mindset of promoting themselves. Instead they share a clear objective: promoting the sport and bringing in new fans.
“When we broadcast, I think about how we can make this game attractive for the fan who just bought a Sky Sports subscription and he or she is clicking around the dial. How do I get them to stay, and come back again?” Reinebold says.
Reinebold and Reynolds draw in fans by strategically adding in education elements to their broadcasts so those predisposed to soccer don’t feel like they’re watching a stop-start trainwreck. Kirkwood admits that some information may be rudimentary for diehards but believes the game action itself and remaining commentary keeps that faction engaged.
Will the Jags wear the crown?
The work is clearly paying dividends, but there’s another fascinating layer to the mission. How does the NFL UK reconcile growing the fan base as a whole with promoting the Jacksonville Jaguars. the current “home” team and an obvious candidate for relocation?
The Jaguars are in the third year of a four year deal to play one home game a season at Wembley, and reports suggest that owner Shahid Khan will announce a four-year extension when the Jaguars “host” the Bills in London this October. The efforts to increase Jacksonville’s presence in London have been intense. The Jags have two employees based out of the London office, and players make frequent offseason appearances. A few weeks ago Jaguars safety Sergio Brown went behind the counter at a branch of UK restaurant chain, Ed’s Easy Diner, to preview a collection of Jags-themed burgers the diner will offer for a limited time in the fall to commemorate the International Series.
The NFL UK office has undoubtedly embraced the Jags. They heavily promote the “Union Jax” fan club, which currently counts 33,000 fans as members, and they openly root for them to succeed. Even Kirkwood, a lifelong Bills fan, admits that he’ll make an exception and support Jacksonville when the two teams face off in London.
Some pre-existing fans like Simon Webster of London, who spent a decade as president of the Washington supporters club, are skeptical of where the support would stem from should the “London Jaguars” become a reality.
“We’d never cheer for the Jags as our own,” Webster says. “And we’d certainly never buy the merchandise. It would always be our second team.”
Kirkwood is well aware of this sentiment, and while he hopes a hypothetical relocated team or expansion team truly becomes a second favorite for diehard fans of another team, he’s banking on a new crop of fans with more of a blank easel when it comes to team loyalty.
Andrew Luck returned to London earlier in July this year for another fan forum, this time with his father, Oliver, a former NFL Europe executive. The setting was Wembley Stadium. This crowd wasn’t decked out in a million different jerseys. There were men, women and kids, all there absorbing the NFL from one of its most high-profile ambassadors. The crowd’s diversity was a testament to the success of the NFL’s UK growth strategy, and its unavoidable temptation to seek out the next frontier.