NFL International Series Poised to Take Big Step in 2018

By Albert Breer
November 24, 2017
Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

The NFL wrapped up its 2017 International Series on Sunday in Mexico City, and the league’s eyes are already trained on 2018. There’s a pretty big step coming in a year’s time.

That would be the opening of the first major stadium abroad, designed specifically with American football in mind. And honestly, this is something that should probably be getting more attention because it’s easily the strongest sign yet of the NFL’s desire to put down stakes across the pond.

Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League opens its new 64,000-seat stadium next August, at an estimated cost of 400 million pounds. Ten million pounds (about $13.3 million U.S.) is coming directly from the NFL. In turn, the place will have locker rooms built for a football team, facilities for coaches and cheerleaders, and a sunk FieldTurf football field under a retractable grass surface for soccer that will allow for a conventional fan experience for both, without having to tarp seats for football.

“I think having a stadium customized and purpose-built for our teams, sport and fans will create a unique experience that will be transformational,” said NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller. “The in-stadium experience will be extraordinary, and the idea of sharing a stadium with a Premier League team and being part of the community of the Premier League adds a new dimension to our presence in London.”

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The obvious next question is whether the league views Tottenham as the eventual home of a permanent NFL team in London. Waller wouldn’t say. But if a franchise were to move there in five or 10 years, it would need a home, and now there’s a natural one for it. In every other international game to this point, the NFL has needed to do a lot of work to get the stadium itself ready.

The point about the Premier League that Waller made shouldn’t be ignored, either. The NFL has previously played games at Wembley and Twickenham, which are national stadiums that are not used by any specific club teams. So being in Tottenham allows the league to try and leverage a piece of the UK sports experience.

So this week’s lesson: The NFL’s next five years internationally will be very important. During that time, a new labor deal will be struck, new broadcast deals will be negotiated, and a plan for the future abroad will become clear. Whether or not the NFL hits its goal of getting a team in London at the International Series 15-year anniversary, 2022, it’s clear we’re moving into the next phase soon. Here are a few more international notes…

• The game in Mexico City went off better than last year, when playing the Monday night before Thanksgiving and flying out of a private airport over an hour away proved a logistical nightmare for the Raiders and Texans. Waller says he got a nice note from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on Tuesday, and another from Raiders owner Mark Davis on Wednesday, both of which said how satisfied their teams were with the trip. Playing on Sunday afternoon, and flying out of the international airport certainly helped.

• The league’s new deal to play games in Mexico stipulates that there will be one game a year through 2021, and all of them will be at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca (recent renovations there made it an ideal site). Waller said, for now, he doesn’t see the league looking to play multiple games per season there, largely because they aren’t testing the market and its logistics the way they are with London.

• The league fielded a lot of complaints from the Mexican public about not playing more games there, given its popularity south of our border. Based on surveys, there are roughly 22 million NFL fans in Mexico, and only around 13 million in the UK. And yes, there is satisfaction now in having been able to pull it off. “It’s satisfying and fulfilling to give them what they’ve been asking for,” said Waller. “It’s important to remember that a lot of work went into the stadium before we went back, because we wanted to make sure when we went back, the participating teams and fans had the right experience. The stadium, that’s what gave us confidence, so it felt good.”

• So the NFL will have the single game in Mexico next year and, as I understand it, no more than four in London. The league is contractually obligated to play two games at Wembley, and plans to play at least one at the new Tottenham stadium, with the rugby ground at Twickenham (the NFL played games there last year and this year) still an option if needed.

Overall, Waller looks at all of this and thinks the league is in good shape abroad, one of the areas where it can grow revenue outside of the traditional business model.

“You take a step back, we sold over 400,000 tickets for five games, and that’s something to be proud of,” he said. “Five huge games in large stadiums, capacity crowds, that shows the appeal of the live game experience.”

And, from Waller’s perspective, it’s reason to feel good about next year’s big step.

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