With sky-high television ratings, packed stadiums, and thriving apparel revenue, the NFL has become an almost unstoppable financial juggernaut in the U.S., and undeniably the most prominent sports league in the country. It almost seems as though the league has exhausted every revenue stream and market demographic as it rakes in roughly $10 billion a year.
Fewer opportunities to expand the domestic brand means the NFL has looked elsewhere to broaden its empire and reach the target goal of $25 billion by 2027, and it comes as little surprise that the league remains focused on London. With a population of approximately 21 million in the metropolitan area, it towers over NFL cities like Indianapolis (1.9 million population), and boasts England’s still-state-of-the art cathedral Wembley Stadium. The 2014 season marks the eight year that the league has played regular-season games in London, but the number of games per season has increased.
After hosting two games in 2013, three games were slated this season in London with the two remaining games taking place on Oct. 26 when the Detroit Lions face the Atlanta Falcons, who are the “home team,” along with a No. 9 date when the Dallas Cowboys face the “home team” Jacksonville Jaguars. The first London game of the season took place on Sept. 28, when the Oakland Raiders fell to the Miami Dolphins, 38-14, in front of 83,436 in attendance. Sellout crowds are expected for both remaining games, and they are certainly a major boost from the just 53,329 who showed up at O.co Coliseum to watch the Raiders face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
But do sellout crowds at Wembley mean the league is profiting off their trips across the Atlantic? According to Mark Waller, NFL’s executive vice president of international, the league is doing just fine at the turnstiles.
The average ticket price in the U.K. is approximately £75 a ticket ($119), according to Waller. That is still well below the average ticket price for Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks ($452.34), according to tiqiq.com. However, Wembley’s capacity is roughly 20 percent larger than CenturyLink Field’s capacity. The crowds at Wembley have also been consistent over the years. Since 2007, only the Oct. 2011 meeting between the chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers drew less than 80,000.
Ticket prices are also more costly compared to the other brand of “football.” An English Premier League match for two London teams like Arsenal and Tottenham would have ticket prices far short of an NFL ticket price at Wembley. The average price for an Arsenal ticket is about £62 ($98.65) while Tottenham is priced at roughly £56.50 ($89.90).
“We basically price at the high end of premium sports events in the U.K.,” Waller said. “So comparative pricing for us would be something like the FA Cup final, which is played at Wembley, or a Premium Rugby international match. We benchmark ourselves against the premium tier of sports, not against the comparative domestic leagues.”
The effects could be viewed by television rights, which have proven to be a major windfall for sports owners. Based on the league’s research, the NFL has 12 million fans in the U.K. According to the NFL, since 2007, the NFL has improved from being the 18th-most-watched sport on Sky Sports to No. 6. Waller said it’s safe to say that the NFL is the fastest growing sport of Sky’s audience. On Sept. 25, the NFL and Sky announced a new television deal that would broadcast 80 live NFL games a year. There are also games played on Channel 4.
With the NFL broadening its reach with London games, Waller claims the NFL is aiming high. Though the NFL has a long way to go before it approaches the reach of the Premier League in the U.K, it could still gain on the fanbase of other sports.
“We have a goal that we would be a top-five sport in the next 10 years, and ‘top five’ is defined by a combination of fan size, and obviously ratings, and the metrics around fan engagement,” he said.
Some might suggest that the league is confining itself to London when other major cities are being neglected. Waller said it unlikely that the league would put a team to another U.K. city like Manchester, Edinburgh, or Cardiff, though plans could be plans to host games in other countries. But Waller believes it’s important to build out a local fanbase in London, if the NFL decides to put an expansion club in the city.
“The rest of Europe, I think, is next on the list of things to do as we go into the 2015 season. ‘Where else could we play?’ ‘Where would make sense?’” Waller said. “I don’t think that’s limited to Europe. There have been a lot of fantastic stadium developments in Brazil, for example.”
For now, the games are in London and will likely stay that way for the near future. Dennis Deninger, professor at the Syracuse University Dept. of Sport Management and former ESPN production executive, believes there is good reason for the decision to keep games in London beyond attendance and reach.
“The NFL is obviously attaching a great deal of importance to their games in London, and the league is very encouraged by the turnout each of these special events has received,” said Deninger.
“They haven’t shared their market research, but it must be convincing them that a move toward a regular season of games in Great Britain — as opposed to occasional games that may attract the curious, but not necessarily a loyal fan base — would be supported by both the potential fanbase and the value of international sponsors who may be enticed to come aboard once the league becomes more than just a U.S. entity.”
Oliver Luck, the former head of NFL Europe, a league that folded in 2007, believes that the NFL has a strong understanding of the opportunities in London.
“I don’t think they would be doing it [if London wasn’t a successful venture],” Luck said with a laugh. “The NFL is a pretty smart organization with a lot of bright people. They crunch a lot of data before and after they make decisions.”
Though Luck doesn’t know the league’s future plans with London, he believes the NFL’s decision to grow from one game a year to three is a clear indicator that the league continues to see the benefits of London.
“I’ve got to assume they are satisfied with what has happened so far,” Luck added.