Remembering a squishy start to NFL's international games
When the NFL held its first regular-season game in London, in October 2007, it didn’t exactly present the best version of itself.
“The first game was rainy, muddy and not very good,” said Frank Supovitz, referencing a fumble-filled 13-10 Giants win over the Dolphins played at the still-under-construction Wembley Stadium. “It was a really sloppy game.”
Off the field, though, the NFL made a good impression, even before the game started, with the first 40,000 tickets selling out within minutes and final attendance topping 81,000. The next year, when the Chargers played the Saints at the same venue, tickets sold out quickly as well. “Clearly there was enough demand in the marketplace,” said Supovitz, former senior vice president of events at the NFL who now consults in the sports and entertainment space.
That demand has built to the point that the league now has its annual, multi-game London Series, with the Bears and Raiders set to kick off the latest edition on Oct. 6 at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Heading into that game, it’s instructive to see how challenging it was 12 years ago to introduce a new sport to a foreign country. Consider:
All tickets had to be sold in advance, as no game-day sales are allowed (a policy rooted in the desire to keep opposing soccer fans separate).
In-stadium betting is allowed in England; the NFL forbid it. “We had to pay to shut the betting windows at the stadiums,” Supovitz said.
2019 International Games
SUNDAY, OCT. 6, 1 P.M. ET
Chicago Bears at Oakland Raiders
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
SUNDAY, OCT. 13, 9:30 A.M. ET
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Rams
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs
Azteca in Mexico City
The grass, tailored to soccer, was not suitable for the rigors of American football. “The NFL game really destroyed the field,” Supovitz said.
The scoreboard had to be changed to accommodate down and distance numbers.
Broadcasters sit outside at Wembley; U.S. broadcasters usually work indoors.
Still, the league overcame the hurdles. “I really admire what they’ve done to grow the number of games and the number of venues,” Supovitz said.
After this year’s series of games, 31 of the 32 NFL teams will have played games in London, with the Packers being the only exception. The growing fan base in London continues to fuel talk of the NFL one day placing a full-time franchise in the U.K.
“We’re up to four million avid fans in the U.K.,” said Chris Halpin, chief strategy and growth officer for the NFL. “It’s a younger, very engaged and committed fan base. The demand is there; we have two great stadiums. But it’s always hard to predict how things will play out.”
The U.K. is only part of the story and the NFL’s global efforts are nothing new. The league played 10 preseason games in Canada (Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton) between 1950 and 1969. Overall, the NFL has now played games in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, Spain and Sweden. Heading into this season, the count was up to 91 international games, comprising 58 preseason games and 33 regular-season contests.
“We’ve been able to develop … really strong growth in the U.K., great foundations in Mexico and Canada, and good emerging growth in Brazil and Germany,” said Mark Waller, former NFL executive vice president for international. He’s now with Formula One race team McLaren but still advises the NFL on its international efforts.
Waller said the league has more than 20 million fans in Mexico and that Mexico City, if it were a U.S. market, would be this nation’s fifth-largest. This season, the NFL has scheduled one game in Mexico, with the Chargers meeting the Chiefs on Nov. 18 at Azteca in Mexico City.
“I believe strongly, in the next 100 years of NFL growth, you will see teams located outside the U.S. market,” Waller said. “I think it’s a huge opportunity, there’s a massive demand for it, and it’s very feasible. The NFL is proving it can be done. Teams can go overseas, play a competitive game, come back to the U.S. and be competitive the next week.”
Bruce Goldberg is a writer in Colorado.