83,559 American football fans packed into London's Wembley stadium to see one of the NFL's worst products, the Jacksonville Jaguars, lose their eighth consecutive game to start the season. The Jaguars and at least five other teams will head to London in each of the next three years as the NFL gauges interest in bringing a franchise across the pond.
A successful experiment
Commissioner Roger Goodell started sending one matchup per year to London in 2007. This year, the number of games expanded to two, and London fans will have a chance to see three games next year.
So far, the average attendance at these games has been great despite the typically poor products they feature. (Of the four teams sent to London, only the 49ers had even one win at the time of the matchup.) "You are proving you are worthy of a franchise," Goodell told European fans at a forum on Saturday night.
But supporting two games a year is significantly easier than supporting a team and its eight home games. To bring an NFL team to London, the city will need to significantly increase its fan base, elevate its status in the eyes of Londoners from novelty act, and actually engage its audience instead of just entertaining them.
The failure of the NFL in London
Although the NFL claims the UK sports a fan base of over 12 million, including 2.5 million avid fans, there's no culture of NFL football there. The two games in London this year drew big crowds, but without any roots, the novelty of American football in Europe will wear off quickly, just as it did in the 1980s when Channel 4 bought the rights to the NFL.
Kids don't toss a football around in the streets and parks of Europe. To date, there are only three British-born players in the NFL: Menelik Watson, Jack Crawford, and Lawrence Okoye. The league will need more European stars before it sees real traction in London.
The NBA's international success
The NBA started marketing its brand in China in the early 1980s. Three decades later, the country is basketball crazy with some 300 million people playing. The league got a boost from perennial all-star center Yao Ming last decade, but the league's popularity continues to grow rapidly even after his retirement.
Last year, the NBA's Chinese website registered 3.3 billion page views. This year, that number rose 34% to 4.5 billion. Video streams increased 169% in the country last season. Now, the NBA has partnered with social networking site Sina (NASDAQ: SINA ) to allow Chinese fans to stream a game every day during the season.
The NBA has used Sina to reach out to fans in recent years and now boasts 60 million followers on the company's Weibo platform. Sina first signed a deal with the NBA in 2010 to become the NBA's official partner and help promote the brand. The company will also have reporters covering each of the NBA's 30 teams and produce a weekly show.
Can you see the difference?
Sure, the NBA goes into China every year to showcase its top stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. This year, its NBA Global Games will feature 12 NBA teams playing 10 games (regular- and pre-season) in 10 cities in seven countries. But it also conducts hundreds of grassroots events in China that let fans experience and engage with the NBA. The NFL has nothing like that.
The NFL is quite saturated in the United States, however. Its best means for expansion is internationally. Yet, the league's top-down approach won't create the long-lasting fan base that the NBA has in China. It needs to get the youth of Europe engaged in the sport, something that's becoming increasingly difficult as health concerns continue to rear their head in the States. Still, it's probably safer than rugby!
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