SBJ/20100329/This Week's News

NFL looks at creating home teams for foreign games

The NFL is considering designating one or two teams that would regularly travel overseas for in-season games in an effort to create a hometown rooting interest in the foreign markets.

The plan is long-term and would not be implemented until a new labor deal is in place at the earliest, but the league appears ready to move beyond just staging a single regular-season game in London every year and expanding that to as many as four international contests. The league also has hosted regular-season games in Mexico and Canada in recent years.

“[What] we learned in the U.K. and Mexico and Canada is ultimately you get fans, and to develop that into avid fans … they have to have a team to root for, a team to love, and the way you do that is to have enough games so one team can come back on a regular basis,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, who oversees the league’s international businesses. “If you only have one game and different teams every year, it’s not enough.

“Imagine, if you had four games in the U.K., and two of those games were different each year,” Waller said, “and two featured the same teams on a repeat basis.”

Waller presented that outline to owners last week at their annual meeting. The comments reflect statements he made last fall about the league’s international opportunities, in advance of the 2009 London game between New England and Tampa Bay. 

Currently, the London games are governed by a five-year resolution the league agreed to in 2007 to stage up to two games a year in the city. There has been a single game each of the first three years.

The Buffalo Bills, independent of that resolution, have played one home game in Toronto each of the last two seasons.

To expand the overseas calendar so aggressively would almost certainly mean an addition of one or two extra games annually to the current 16-game schedule. Many teams are loath to give up home games on a regular basis, though some teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay, are struggling to sell out games. The Bucs recently warned that the team could suffer its first blackouts since opening Raymond James Stadium in 1998.

Waller may be in front of the thinking of NFL owners, at least in some cases. Rita Benson LeBlanc, co-owner of the New Orleans Saints and a member of the owners’ international committee, said she would like to see the current setup continue before altering the model.

Waller’s counter to that appears to be that if the league wants to grow, it can only do so much in the United States, where it already holds standing as the nation’s most popular sport.

“There is clearly massive upside internationally,” he said.

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