NFL's Got the U.S. -- Now It Looks to U.K.

Game in London Part of Long-Term Push to Bolster League's Popularity in Britain

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LONDON ( -- A 26-foot animatronic version of Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor strides around London's Trafalgar Square while troupes of cheerleaders hand out stickers and badges, urging passers-by to pick a team: the Dolphins if you like beaches and sunshine; the New York Giants if the Big Apple entertainment is more your bag.
The NFL played its first regular-season game outside of North America this past Sunday.
The NFL played its first regular-season game outside of North America this past Sunday. Credit: Dave Shopland

The scene marked the launch of an enthusiastic assault on Londoners -- part of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign by NFL U.K. to create buzz around the first regular-season NFL game to be played outside North America. It took place in the London rain on Oct. 28 at the iconic Wembley Stadium.

Teaching them to tailgate
An indoor arena near the stadium became an interactive funfair for the day in an attempt to re-create something of the tailgate experience familiar to American but alien to British sports fans, who turn up just as the game starts and leave at the final whistle. Inside the arena, live bands, games and "Big JT" -- as the robot is known -- entertained 30,000 fans.

"Big JT" also visited other London sites and was seen by an estimated 1.5 million people. The game itself was witnessed by a sellout crowd of 81,000 lucky fans (1 million applied for tickets) while an average of 120,000 watched it live on Sky Sports and a million saw the 11 p.m. highlights on BBC2.

It's still a far cry from the audiences of 30 million that the NFL garners in the U.S., but NFL U.K. managing director Alistair Kirkwood is bullish about the game's prospects outside its home territory. "NFL is dominant in the U.S. -- sponsorship and TV interest is as good as it can be. This is a play for the future, to try and build up a business and a fan base outside the U.S. so that we can become more relevant for our international business partners. We are too one-dimensional for them."

Bridgestone Tires was the headline sponsor at Wembley, with Coors Brewing, Chevrolet and Canon acting as second-tier sponsors. TV coverage of the NFL, which is shown six days a week on subscription channel Sky Sports and weekly on free-to-air Channel 5, has yet to secure a sponsorship deal in the U.K.

"NFL aspires to be a mass consumer product but it's not quite there," Mr. Kirkwood said, noting that the NFL U.K. website has 126,000 regular members. "Now we have a track record. We are having conversations with third parties and hope to seal something in the next three months. We are not looking for easy money -- we would like partners to activate and help us get the sport out there."
The 'home' team Miami Dolphins take the field in a decidedly American fashion.
The 'home' team Miami Dolphins take the field in a decidedly American fashion. Credit: Dave Shopland

Why London?
So why was London chosen as the NFL's focus outside the U.S.? The common language helps, of course, and there is a business synergy in that NFL owners are already buying up English Premiership soccer clubs. Malcolm Glazer owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United; Randy Lerner owns the Cleveland Browns and Aston Villa; Stan Kroenke owns a significant minority in Arsenal as well as the St Louis Rams; and two other NFL owners are rumored to be in negotiations with top-flight English soccer clubs.

The U.K.'s biggest draw, however, is its dedication to sports and willingness to spend money on them -- it is the biggest sports-media-rights country outside the U.S. "Doing reasonably well in the U.K. is better than being No. 1 somewhere else," Mr Kirkwood said.

One NFL game a season is planned to take place in London, and there are even murmurings about holding a Super Bowl there. Mr. Kirkwood added that the decision has been made to concentrate on the U.K. because "we can't afford to skim the surface and be average or below average in lots of markets. We're not indigenous and we don't have a history of success so we need to do spectacularly well in one place. It starts with the U.K., but it doesn't necessarily end here."
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