International Series 2016: The Biggest Test Yet?

The three International Series games for 2016 have been announced with mini fist pumps across Europe from Rams, Jaguars, Redskins, Bengals and Colts fans (and raised hopes for the NFC East). For those who will get the chance to see their team play live possibly for the first time, it’s the start of an exciting journey. For those not lucky enough to have their team make the schedule, it’s not exactly the most enthralling line up with several of the weakest teams of 2015 showcased. On the other hand, it’s live football on our doorstep and with teams changing so much year on year it’s impossible to predict the quality.

Although we might like to think that the main driver behind the choice of games and the International Series as a whole is to please the international fan base, in reality this is only part of the intention. The NFL is a business and the International Series is part of a strategy to expand this business. With the market in the US swamped except for Los Angeles (which looks to be rectified imminently), the prime reasoning behind bringing games beyond American borders is and has always been to test new markets with a view for further expansion. Whether this is in terms of number of games, locations or even a London based franchise, each year the international market has been pushed a little further. So far, each new challenge; more games, more teams, season tickets has been hit out of the park by the European fan base so this year a new range of tests has been thrown our way.

  1. A new stadium
Since it’s inception in 2007 the International Series has found its home at Wembley so 2016 is the first year it is stepping into uncharted territory in terms of accommodation. Nobody likes change, but I personally welcome the NFL testing the set up at Twickenham especially as it provides more varied pre and post game options. However, unless you live south of the River Thames, Twickenham is a much trickier travel conundrum than Wembley with it’s numerous links. Many put the limited popularity of the London Monarchs in NFL Europe down to the fact they didn’t have a permanent home and so the league needs to see if the fan base will follow the sport regardless of location. Wembley would unlikely be available for a possible franchise, so moving to other places needs to be scouted.
2. A game without a team…yet
Season ticket holders from 2015 will be able to purchase their tickets for 2016 as early as next week with further ticket sales coming soon, however, the opponent for the St Louis Rams in week seven at Twickenham is yet to be decided. This relies on fans being willing to purchase tickets ‘blindly’ and allows the NFL to more deeply investigate whether the choice of team greatly affects the sale of tickets. The opponents will be from the NFC East, with at least two of the most popular UK supported teams, but still this is a new development in the International Series market testing and an interesting question when considering ticket purchase, especially for those who have to travel further than the wider London area where the cost is more than just the seat in the stadium.
3. Two in a row?

There is a possibility, depending on outcomes in the 2015 NFC East, that the Washington Redskins may play twice in the UK on consecutive weeks. Again, this has never happened in International Series history although it was mooted that Jacksonville might test this option. For a Redskins fan this would be like all  Christmas’ coming at once, but for other fans (outside of the Jags and Rams), this could be a less enticing proposition. If a franchise does arrive here further down the line, season tickets will be key, as well as enticing regular attendance from the numerous fans of other teams who will not change their allegiance. This possibility tests that scenario in a way not done previously.

4. A non European game

Maybe us Europeans have come to see the International Series as our own and some expected a larger slate of games in 2016, but the league has left the door open for further games outside of the US, most likely in Mexico City. The South and Central American appetite for the game is huge and closely aligned time zones means less disruption to the US TV market. We shouldn’t be surprised if the NFL continues to look wider than the UK in the future.

Considering the greater appetite for the game and increased mainstream exposure especially in the UK, it seems likely that despite these new tests, the NFL will still see a business case for further international expansion in Europe (as well as elsewhere), especially with the new Tottenham stadium coming on line possibly in 2017. Whether or not that leads to a London franchise is still a polarising issue on which I fall heavily on the side of no, but that is another conversation for another day. I for one will still be snapping up my season ticket renewal.

 

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