How African-born Brit Mark Waller became NFL's global guru

He was but a boy, not even 7, and yet saying goodbye to his mother was not particularly difficult. He had his older brother by his side. And he was ready to go, even if boarding school on another continent was the destination.

It was the 1960s. Little Mark Waller boarded a flight in Nairobi, Kenya, and never looked back.

Waller inherited his wanderlust, and over the course of his 57 years it has taken him to all seven continents and more countries than he can count. Waller, a British citizen, has lived in Kenya, England, China, Spain, Greece, Canary Islands and, for the past 20 years, the United States. Born in Kenya to British parents, he has worked for a cigarette company, an alcoholic beverage company and, for the last decade, one of the biggest brands in all of sports. Waller is executive vice president for international for the National Football League.

The man who as a child helped take care of a chimpanzee and a zebra, whose hair was so silky his African friends always touched it, who loved rugby and cricket and soccer, has become one of the most important and influential figures in the NFL. Waller's mission: turn America's favorite sport into the globe's game.

In 2006, Waller spurned an executive position with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and joined the NFL to help develop its international strategy. He has held several positions for the league in the years since, including chief marketing officer, but in June 2014 Waller told commissioner Roger Goodell he wanted to return to the international side of the business.

It was, he reasoned, about to take off after the huge success of the International Series in London, which he helped the league start in 2007.

Waller's vision for the NFL in 10 years: "I don't think we'll be big in 150 countries around the world. I think we'll have a really powerful presence in six to 10 countries that are really critical globally. If we're big in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, U.K., Germany, China, Japan and Australia, we'd be in a great place."

Waller already is.

Out of Africa

Jeanne and John Waller moved from England to Nairobi in 1955 to satisfy their own wanderlust. John went to work for British Overseas Airline Corporation (now British Airways), running its training school for East African Airways, which was just being established. Jeanne worked as a school teacher and later as a journalist. They had three boys: Craig, Mark and Grant.

Mark, born in 1959, was always quick to do everything. He walked at 8½ months. He read early. He excelled at math. He was, as his mother said, a "sunny, outgoing little boy" but one she often thought was "overactive and difficult."

When he was around 4 years old, Waller's family moved to Nyeri, Kenya, to run Treetops Lodge, a remote resort made famous by Queen Elizabeth, who while on vacation there in 1952 became queen after King George VI, her father, died. The lodge was surrounded by wildlife. A zebra lived there, as did a chimp named Sebastian, whom Mark would take for walks, and there was a watering hole nearby from which elephants would drink.

Jeanne dreaded sending her two older boys to boarding school, but there was political unrest in Kenya, and the Wallers feared their sons would not get an adequate education there.

"He [Mark] didn't mind at all," Jeanne said from her home in Salisbury, England. "He never looked back, which was quite hurtful, really. ... He seemed really excited to be going and how it was going to be an adventure."

Said Mark: "The net result of it is you become incredibly resilient and self-sufficient. So there was definitely a time I spent very early on [where] obviously it's painful to be away from your parents. But what it develops in you is a real ability to fend for yourself and the real ability to sort of absorb and relate to what is going on around you. That moving around gives you that sort of cultural awareness that you don't necessarily get if you stay in the same place all the time."

Mark went to prep school in Great Britain at St. John's On the Hill and then the Monmouth School, and he spent holidays and summers in Kenya and, later, Hong Kong, where his father was on assignment with the British Royal Air Force when he was a teenager. He played rugby and performed in theater at Monmouth, then studied Italian and Spanish at Durham University in England and spent a year abroad teaching in the Canary Islands, where he met his wife, Mary, a native of Ireland.

After he graduated from Durham, Waller had trouble finding a job. Rejection followed rejection, so much so that his mother feared he would say, "Blow this," she said. But after applying for nearly 500 jobs, Waller got a couple of offers and chose to work for Gallaher Ltd., an English tobacco manufacturer. After two years of training, he joined the company's international division following the death of his father of a heart attack in January 1984. He returned to the Canary Islands before moving to Madrid to help set up the company's Spanish operation.

In 1988, Waller took a job with Guinness, which was going through a reverse takeover of a liquor company he then went to work for. He worked in Barcelona, Madrid and Athens, Greece, and in 1996 came to the United States to be the company's head of marketing in New York.

Waller loved New York. He's an eternal optimist and a curiosity seeker, and in his first weeks in New York he was at a dinner for the spirits industry seated next to a journalist from the New York Times. They shared stories, and at the end of the dinner, the journalist told Waller he would love it in the United States.

"Why?" Waller asked.

"He said, 'Well, this is a country built on optimism, and essentially everybody who is here came here because they wanted a better life, and so it sort of self-selected the genetic pool of incredibly optimistic people, and you're going to love the ability to be a part of that,'" Waller said.

"And I always remember that, because he was absolutely right. It's just an extraordinarily positive and optimistic country, and it breeds an energy that is unlike anything I've ever seen before and something I definitely sort of fell in love with."

One thing Waller quickly learned about the United States: Americans love their football. And yet Waller was lost. In New York on Monday mornings, much of the casual chatter would be about the Giants or the Jets. But Waller, an avid Premier League soccer fan, didn't understand the game and why it constantly stopped and started.

After two years in New York, Waller moved to Chicago in 1998 to run the Midwest division for the liquor company, which had become part of alcoholic beverage giant Diageo. He attended his first NFL game -- the Packers at the Vikings on a Monday night -- and began to really understand how the NFL drives consumer behavior, particularly from September to February.

"That was really where I became fascinated with it from sort of a cultural standpoint as well as a sporting standpoint," Waller said. "When you live in the Midwest and you see kind of what the game represents community wise, socially as well as from a sort of sporting perspective, it became pretty clear to me you couldn't do a good job fitting in if you didn't understand the sport, and I mean that socially and professionally."

In 2005, Waller decided to leave Diageo. A colleague passed along his résumé to Steve Bornstein, the former president of ESPN and ABC who was running NFL Media. Bornstein and Waller met, and then Waller met with Goodell, then the NFL's chief operating officer, and a few other top league executives. The NFL didn't have an opening, but it did have a need for someone to take a look at its disjointed international strategy. NFL Europe was still operating, but there was little consensus about where and how to expand globally.

"That was a time where we were recruiting a lot of people into the NFL because we'd just started up the media group in pretty serious fashion, launched the network and ultimately took over the internet site," Bornstein said. "So I was reviewing a lot of résumés, and this one had a strong marketing background. The guy was from the U.K., and I just thought it would be a unique perspective, which I think turned out to be correct, on how to look at American football. ... He's a uniquely talented individual."

Waller spent several months working on a presentation. When he was on the second slide of his presentation, a 20-minute debate broke out among those in attendance about his initial ideas.

"It was very clear that international was the subject that didn't really have a lot of alignment internally," Waller said.

Shortly thereafter, the NFL created a position -- senior vice president of international -- and offered it to Waller. He accepted.

"The more that sports fans around the world experience our game, the more they enjoy it, and the more they want to engage in it," Goodell said. "Mark has known this for a long time. He came to love and appreciate our sport the same way, not as someone that has been around football his entire life. ... He has been effective at helping others in the NFL community understand just how appealing our game is to a global audience."

Spreading the NFL gospel globally

The NFL's popularity abroad has exploded in the decade since Waller arrived at the league office. Since 2007, there have been 14 games in London, with three more on the schedule this season -- two at Wembley Stadium and one at Twickenham Stadium, home of England's national rugby team. In addition, in November the league will return to Mexico City, which in 2005 hosted the NFL's first regular-season game held outside the United States.

Jacksonville is committed to playing one game at Wembley Stadium each season through 2020, and the Los Angeles Rams will play one international game each of the next three seasons. The NFL also has a 10-year agreement with Tottenham Hotspur to play two games per year in the Premier League club's new stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2018.

Waller is on record as saying he believes there will be a team based in England in the next five years. The league also is committed to growing the business in China and potentially playing a regular-season game there as soon as 2018.

Ten years from now, Waller said, "I think we will have at least one or two franchises outside of the U.S. I think we'll be incredibly strong in Mexico, possibly even more popular than soccer by then. I think we'll be very strong in the U.K. and Germany, and we'll be growing a really interesting niche business in China, but niche in China will still be a meaningful thing to be, and that will really be I think a digital business with the young, global Chinese and Asian consumers."

Waller would like to see the project through.

"I really believe that there's a huge role for sport to play globally, both just in terms of connecting consumers, particularly in the world we live in digitally and socially, but also an opportunity to make people really happy," Waller said. "That's what sport does. I'm a big believer that sport's role is to give people optimism and hope and something really passionate to root for. So I'm really happy doing what I'm doing."

He also would like to travel more and photograph wildlife in the Arctic and Antarctica, in the African countries Botswana and Namibia, and in India. Waller has settled in the United States, but he'll never shake that wanderlust.

"I'll be honest with you," Waller said, "there's nowhere in the world I wouldn't want to go."