SBJ/September 26 - October 2, 2005/Other News

Important days for NFL’s global efforts

With the NFL’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the fate of the New Orleans Saints attracting considerable attention, the league’s international push quietly faces significant hurdles in the coming days.

Sunday, the league stages its first international regular-season game, in Mexico City, between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. Depending on the results of the game, the league could make a non-U.S., regular-season contest an annual tradition.

Tokyo, a preseason host this year, is considering a bid for a regular-season game.
Next week, owners are scheduled to vote on renewing NFL Europe and approving a new business plan for its money-losing overseas offshoot.

Asked whether the vote on extending the league would be close, as it was two years ago, NFL chief operating officer Roger Goodell responded, “I assume so. I think everyone supports NFL International.”

NFL International encompasses all of the league’s overseas efforts, and generally has the strong support of ownership, which sees it as necessary to position the NFL in a global economy. But specifically whether 24 owners, the number needed to extend NFL Europe, want to continue that endeavor is another matter.

With the European outfit losing $40 million annually two years ago, NFL Europe passed without a vote to spare, and only after Commissioner Paul Tagliabue persuaded the Chicago Bears to change their “nay” at the last moment. For supporters, the league is viewed as a good player-development tool, as well as branding for the NFL. Opponents see it as a waste of money.

Owners also will be voting Oct. 6 in Detroit on a new business plan that includes seeking local business partners in Europe.

“If you have local operators, you can market the teams better,” Goodell said. “You can generate more sponsorships, generate more revenues in the local marketplaces.”

Meanwhile, the NFL is staging its most audacious international event to date: a regular-season game. Even before the opening kickoff, other international cities are beginning to vie for such a game.

Today the NFL’s London office, which oversees Europe, will convene a press conference outside Wembley Stadium with William “The Refrigerator” Perry to lobby for a regular-season game there in 2006.

Groups in Toronto, Tokyo and a few German cities also are considering putting together bids for a regular-season game, said Pete Abitante, an NFL spokesman.

If true, an in-season, foreign game could attract a Super Bowl-like process with cities bidding for the right to host the contest.

However, it is unlikely the league will decide right away whether to stage another overseas game. The Cardinals’ woeful home-field attendance records made moving their home game to Mexico easier than for a team that draws sellouts.

An annual, regular-season, non-U.S. competition certainly will not be discussed next week in Detroit, Goodell said. And the league might not decide until after this season.

That is not stopping the London group, which in addition to the Fridge has added rugby star Martin Johnson and former Glasgow Celtic manager Martin O’Neil as spokesmen.

NFL International representative David Tossell described the initiative as being as much an effort to raise awareness in the United Kingdom in order to sell more sponsorships and tickets for a potential game, as a push to win the next overseas competition.

There is no longer an NFL Europe team in the U.K., but Tossell described the country as the NFL’s top overseas market in terms of TV viewership and merchandise sales.

Still, the NFL has a long way to go in England. While the Fridge made a big splash there during the first American Bowl preseason game in 1986 with the champion Bears, he is still the most recognizable NFL player in the country, Tossell said. Perry retired 11 years ago.

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