NFL looks beyond U.S. borders to grow game

NFL looks beyond U.S. borders to grow game
New York Giants fans wait outside before an NFL fan rally Saturday at the NFL House in Victoria House in London.
(Tim Ireland / Associated Press)

The NFL has enjoyed unprecedented growth during the last quarter century, both in popularity and franchise values, making it the envy of every other professional sports league. As the recent dip in television numbers suggest, however, no enterprise is bulletproof and ominous clouds can quickly cluster.

A hallmark of Roger Goodell’s decade as commissioner has been his desire to keep the league moving forward, to make envelope-pushing changes to grow the game, whether it’s turning the scouting combine into a televised event, spreading the draft over three days and putting the first round in prime time, or clearing the way for a team to return to Los Angeles.

It’s only logical, then, that the NFL would continue to make international inroads, constantly making tweaks to its overseas endeavors with the potential of one day planting a franchise outside the U.S. borders.

For the 10th consecutive season, the NFL is staging regular-season games in London, three of them this year, including Sunday’s matchup between the Rams and New York Giants at Twickenham Stadium. To this point, all the London games have been played at Wembley Stadium, but the league is trying the somewhat smaller Twickenham, a rugby venue, to create options for future scheduling.

“This is an opportunity that, when you’re 5 years old, never did you think you would be playing football in London,” Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “That just never really was implanted in my mind unless it was soccer.”

That said, as access to the NFL has increased dramatically in recent years, and fans in London can follow it as closely as those in Los Angeles, spectators have become increasingly sophisticated and discerning about what they’re watching.

“Last time here, nine years ago, the fans were sometimes cheering at odd times during the game,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said, “so we’ll see if the understanding has grown over these past nine years.”

Watching Rams practice from the sideline this week was Martin Johnson, who captained England to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Still lean and athletic, the 6-foot-7 Johnson has been a devoted fan of the San Francisco 49ers since the early 1980s, and can give a game-by-game recap of the club’s golden eras. By his side was his 7-year-old son, Henry, wearing a 49ers jersey.

“When it [the NFL] first came, it was like watching something from another planet,” said Johnson, 46. “It was like, ‘What are these guys doing? It’s incredible!’ We had a video recorder, and I remember watching until the tape ran out.’

“When they started bringing the games over here, I thought, ‘Great, regular-season game, OK.’ Then they kept selling them out. People have been saying for years that we should get a team, and I’d say, ‘Well, they haven’t gotten a team in Los Angeles yet, and that’s a bigger deal to the NFL.’ Now that they’ve got a team in Los Angeles …”

Plenty of hurdles remain, including the challenge of traveling to London — an 11-hour flight from the West Coast — all the complications of scheduling, attracting free agents to live overseas, and of course working through another franchise relocation, as there’s no imminent likelihood of expansion beyond the current 32 clubs.

Regardless, the ball is inching forward on these international initiatives. There’s the game Sunday at Twickenham, and construction is underway for a London stadium opening in 2018, future home of soccer’s Tottenham Hotspur. The NFL will have a dedicated roll-in/roll-out field for that 61,000-seat venue, giving the league a third scheduling option.

“It will be a very different experience, and I think as a result of that we will get a lot of learning from a fan perspective on the different environments and how they work for our fans and for the game we want to put on,” said Mark Waller, NFL executive vice president for international.

There are plenty more international games to come, including a Nov. 21 game between Oakland and Houston in Mexico City. In addition to playing here Sunday, the Rams have requested a Mexico City game next year, and a game in Bejing in 2018. The league is working through the details of what will be its first regular-season game in China, which would require a 12- to 14-hour flight for a West Coast team.

“The work that we are doing now with them is working out the logistics of, how do we do that not just for the playing of the game but how do they work with in the competitive schedule the whole season?” Waller said. “So the logistics and the time required are very different.”

Among the scheduling options being considered are playing a Saturday or Sunday morning game in China that coincides with the prime-time window Friday or Saturday night on the West Coast.

For the moment, the focus is London. The NFL has a five-year commitment that runs through 2021 to play a minimum of two games per season at Wembley. It also has a 10-year deal that starts in 2018 for two games per season at Tottenham. That means there’s a period where the deals overlap during which there will be at least four London games.

The NFL passed a resolution saying that any team that wins a bid to host a Super Bowl in its city must play an international game, and the same goes for any team that relocates.

The next step in the progression will be a team playing back-to-back games in London. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving up two home games, but, say, Jacksonville could be a home team in London one week, then stay to be the visitor the following week.

Indianapolis broke new ground this season when it became the first team to play a London game, then play a home game the next week, as opposed to getting a week off. The Colts didn’t want their bye so early in the season.

It was significant to the NFL that the Colts came back from London and were able to beat Chicago the next week. They weren’t undone by the travel.

“I think that was a stepping stone,” Giants receiver Victor Cruz said.

Are those steps heading in the direction of a London franchise?

“Los Angeles is the best analogy to that question,” Waller said. “How many years you have you asked about a team coming back to L.A.? The minute two or three owners expressed a desire to be in L.A., it all happened in a remarkably fast timeframe.

“What I would like to think is that we are doing the best job possible to make the market ready so as and when ownership decides that’s something they want to do, they can do that as quickly as they want.”

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesFarmer