The NFL is viewed as a domestic sports league, but the popularity of the league’s international series and an increase in the number of international buyers purchasing tickets to games stateside would indicate the league’s efforts to grow its fan base abroad are working. Back in late August, StubHub revealed that ticket demand for the 2019 international series (includes: 4 games in the U.K. and 1 in Mexico) rose +55% YoY, while international buyer sales are up +19% YoY.
Enthusiasm for American football is spreading across the globe. The league determined that the number of avid football fans in the U.K. rose +25% to 4 million in 2018, making it the 3rd most popular sport in the country. There’s serious momentum for the game in Germany with avid fan growth up between +15% and +20% YoY and league EVP, chief strategy and growth officer, Chris Halpin says that Brazil has become a “really strong consumption market” for the league. Australia, Mexico and Canada, where the NFL has become the number two sports league (behind the NHL), are also growth markets. If you’re looking for a common thread between all of these countries, they’ve all sent home-grown players to the NFL – players who then serve to advocate for the sport in their homeland both during their playing careers and in retirement.
Howie Long-Short: The avidity of the English football fan is clear. The two international series games scheduled at Tottenham’s new venue sold out in 45 minutes. It took a bit longer – roughly one hour – to sell the two games at Wembley; of course, the venue holds 18,000 more fans. Halpin says that the league is “about 10x over-subscribed” on ticket waiting lists for games in the country.
There is currently “considerable over-demand” for the NFL product in the U.K., what is not as clear is if that demand would hold should the league expand its international offering; earlier this year it was reported that the league was considering the idea of increasing the slate to eight games. Halpin acknowledges that selling single game tickets to four games is different than selling a ‘London season ticket’.
Did you know? Last season’s Eagles-Jaguars game at Wembley was the “most in-demand regular season game, in terms of secondary market demand, in NFL history.” A prominent Jaguar fan base – remember, the team has regularly played games in England since ‘13 – combined with the rare opportunity to see the defending Super Bowl champions live made the game a particularly tough ticket.
There is constant speculation about the possibility of placing a franchise permanently in London and the league acknowledges it is “always testing the [market’s] ability to [support] a franchise – [evaluating] endemic [interest], corporate support and most importantly fan energy and ticket demand.” But the U.K. isn’t the only international market that the league would consider. Halpin said that “Mexico City and Toronto [also] have the fan bases to support a team.”
That doesn’t mean fans in those cities should start saving for personal seat licenses. Once the Rams, Chargers and Raiders move into new buildings next season, Halpin says the league feels as if it’s in “pretty good position with [its] 32 franchises.” There are no immediate threats for relocation and the league is highly unlikely to upset the balance that eight, four-team divisions provides.
Fan Marino: The NFL plays regular season games abroad, while international soccer leagues continue to serve the U.S. sports fan meaningless ‘friendly’ exhibitions. It wasn’t always that way. The league played pre-season games overseas throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, but decided if it was going to make the trip, it might as well put its best product on the field; the sophisticated sports fans can tell the difference between elite-level competition and glorified practice. To build a following in a new market a pro sports league needs to make a commitment to the local fans. They need to know the league is serious if they’re going to invest their time, money and emotions in the games.
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