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SBJ/January 28 - February 3, 2002/Special Report
League ponders future of global involvement
Published January 28, 2002
On Sept. 11, the NFL's New York headquarters was sealed off from Park Avenue by the iridescent yellow tape that's as familiar a sight at crime scenes as flashing red lights.
Inside 280 Park, after the initial shock of the human tragedy began to abate in the days following the terrorist attacks, the folks whose job it is to export the NFL wondered if they still had a global business.
With sports on hiatus and international travel in a deep freeze, executives for NFL International worried that what only Americans call football might stay within the United States, forever behind a police line like the building itself.
"When we finally got down to thinking about business, it was all about 'what if?' " said NFLI senior vice president Doug Quinn. "Even the most motivated people here could only say 'wait and see.' At first."
Added Gordon Smeaton, senior marketing director at NFLI: "The decision as to whether we were going to play that Sunday or not was one that was closely followed around the world."
Eight days after Sept. 11, Quinn was on a plane to the Sportel TV sports trade show in Monaco. Some business was written there, and only then did Quinn believe his unit would weather the storm. "All the people we do business with were coming after us as aggressively as we usually come after them," Quinn said.
While most NFL International deals come after the Super Bowl, Quinn offers a trio of recent bigger, better renewals from Japanese TV broadcasters NTV, NHK and Gaora as evidence that the NFL is a viable export, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"After some of the shock wore off, we were happy to see that as an icon of all things American, there was as much interest as ever," Smeaton said. "The tonality of some of the promotion of the NFL has changed around the world, but of course, that's been true in the U.S. as well."
As the largest one-day sports event on the planet, the Super Bowl is the NFL's most exported product. In some countries, it is the only NFL game broadcast annually.
This year, the Super Bowl is being beamed to 166 countries in 32 languages, including Hindi and Russian. NFL International is joining its MLB and NBA brethren by producing its own TV feed this season for the first time.
The dot.com side of the house also is getting more cosmopolitan. The game-day, real-time play-by-play is being done in German, Spanish, French, Danish, Japanese and Russian, along with English, a record number of languages for Superbowl.com.
Still, the top mission for NFLI this year is to come up with a new agenda.
Former NFLI chief and current MLS Commissioner Don Garber laid out a five-year plan in 1997 that has now run its course. Quinn said the global effort has exceeded all the goals spelled out in that initial plan and even had two years in which it was financially self-sufficient.
"We could pay for ourselves from here on out if we chose to," said Quinn, who would not reveal any revenue figures for NFLI.
What's at the heart of the proposal Quinn will present for NFL ownership later this year is whether it is best to continue the status quo, invest more into global development, or divest.
Chances are the answer will be to invest in new grassroots youth programs overseas and more offshore broadcast exposure, Quinn said. The reason he can be optimistic about the possibilities can be summed up in two words: Kurt Warner, the two-time MVP and Super Bowl winner. As an NFL Europe alum, Warner legitimized the league's global efforts as a training ground and as a marketable product.
When NFL owners mull further investment in Europe, Asia and other markets, they must balance the growth in overhead with the reality that 58 players on the 12 NFL teams that qualified for the playoffs came through the European league.
The number of league employees overseas has grown from 36 to 200 during the past five years. But with that kind of talent being produced, the league's import/export business is bound to continue.