The announcement Friday that the St. Louis Rams will be the home team in London for a game a year for three years is all about the NFL trying to strengthen its fan base -- and revenue streams -- overseas.
Last October, the league announced that games in London would continue through 2016, with the goal of having at least two games a year in England. But the only game in 2012 will be the Rams game against the New England Patriots on Oct. 28.
NFL officials tout progress in Europe on multiple fronts in recent years. The NFL’s popularity has doubled since the league began playing games in London in 2006 -- the league has seen a 32 percent increase in two years in England and now has a total base of 11 million fans. Participation in American football has grown 50 percent since the NFL arrived in London, and television viewership is up, with Super Bowl ratings up 74 percent since 2006 and viewership of Sunday games up 154 percent over the past five years.
But the overall NFL-in-Europe story has been measured. The NFL’s first venture into Europe was in 1991 as the World League of American Football. That league was disbanded prior to the 1993 season, and in 1995, NFL Europe was launched. That league folded in 2007, after drawing fewer than 20,000 fans per game on average. Last year’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears was not a sellout but did draw more than 75,000 people to the game, despite not being finalized until after the lockout.
Lou Imbriano, former chief marketing officer for the Patriots, said the NFL “has done a great job of building their audience in London” but still has room to grow. He said it will take a second game annually to get a true feel for the appetite of Londoners for the NFL.
“One game is easy,” he said. “Everyone can stop for that one time of year. In the next year or two you’ll see them playing two games. That will really be the test is can they sell out two games.”
Chris Parsons, NFL vice president of international, said the ultimate step -- putting an NFL franchise in London -- could only be considered after doubling the current fan base, which would lead to high TV ratings.
English fans now see four games a week live on television, with Sky Sports showing two of the day games and Channel 4 showing the evening game on Sundays. UK fans also get "Monday Night Football" via ESPN. BBC shows highlights from games and airs the Super Bowl live as well on the radio. In addition, Sky Sports shows programming from NFL Network like “NFL Total Access” during the week.
Parsons said a feature Sky Sports introduced last year called “Red Button,” which takes fans to commercial-free red zone action, has been a big hit. “It brings in new fans because it’s nonstop action, which is what UK fans are used to with their sports,” he said.
While the St. Louis game in London will deprive hometown fans of a game each year, it will not affect the team negatively financially.
Ticket revenue for a regular-season home game is split, with 66 percent going to the home team and 34 percent going into a pool that is split between all 32 clubs equally. Parsons said revenue from the London matchup will be handled separately so that no net loss occurs for the Rams.
Imbriano sees positives in the Patriots making the trip.
“They’re an East Coast team, so the travel is roughly comparable to flying to the West Coast,” he said. If he were still in the Patriots front office, he said, he would be pulling together a database of contacts the team has in London and looking into business opportunities, like building a fan club or hosting events while the team is in town.
“If I was running the marketing, I would love the exposure to the European market and to London,” he said. “I’d want to become London’s team.”
The Rams, though, may have the advantage in achieving that status because of the three home games in London, and because Stan Kroenke is the Rams' owner and happens to be the majority shareholder in the English soccer club Arsenal.