In Depth

Mark Waller: NFL London team to make 2022 touch down

The Week speaks to the NFL vice-president about the 2017 London games - and the new stadium deal with Tottenham

Ten years after the NFL staged its first regular-season match outside the US, when the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in front of a crowd of 81,176 at Wembley Stadium, the sport is pressing ahead with plans for a permanent presence in London.

Eighteen matches later, the NFL International Series now includes Mexico on its schedule and in the next month London will stage four games - starting with Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Baltimore Ravens at Wembley on Sunday.

With two matches at Wembley and two at Twickenham, tickets for the London encounters have sold out and the interest in American football is at an all-time high here in the UK.

Mark Waller, a British citizen born in Kenya, has played a crucial role in the growth of gridiron outside the States. After working for drinks company Diageo, he joined the NFL in 2006 and is now the league’s executive vice-president of international.

The NFL’s success in London is evident. Waller tells TheWeek.co.uk that, since 2007, it has added “one million avid fans”, more UK university students play American football than ever before and there has been an increase in live coverage on Sky Sports and the BBC.

As partner of Tottenham’s new stadium and with plans for a London franchise on track for 2022, the NFL’s international prospects have never been better.

“We have been pleased with the response and have been able to sell out four games,” Waller said about the London series.

“The fact that we’re selling out the stadiums that we’re playing in [Wembley and Twickenham], those are significant stadiums in terms of size and capacity. The pricing on the games is definitely a premium experience, so to be able to deliver that to fans is great.”

 

Mark Waller is the NFL’s executive vice president of international (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

2022: The 15-year plan for a London team

Because of the growing interest in the NFL in London and Britain as a whole, having a team based in the UK capital has been a talking point for years.

Noting that it took 20 years for the NFL to return to Los Angeles, Waller says a 15-year timeline was needed from the launch of the international series to the creation of a London-based team.

“I’ve always felt that for us there was a 15-year window and also 2022 will coincide with a lot of things in the league,” said Waller.

“We will renegotiate our union agreement at about that time and if we were ever to put a team internationally that would require union involvement and agreement. We also renegotiate all our broadcast agreements at that time as well.”

World-class stadium at Tottenham

The NFL’s partnership with Spurs will see an ultra-modern 61,559-seat capacity stadium built in north London. The stadium will have separate facilities for Premier League football and the NFL and will feature the world’s first ‘dividing retractable pitch’.

Waller says that for a potential London franchise, having a world-class arena to play in is critical to the business plan.

“The cornerstone in any franchise is where are you going to play?” he said. “If you go back to LA, where it took 20 years to bring a team back, that was driven ultimately by the lack of a stadium. Then Stan Kroenke’s decision to build a stadium accelerated the decision to move back to LA.

“Having a stadium solution is key. We love the Wembley and Twickenham experiences but they’re not our stadiums and they have other commitments.

“The great thing about the Tottenham configuration is you can have other commitments and still flip the stadium in probably no more than a couple of hours at most.”

Waller, and the rest of the NFL executives, are excited to be part of the new stadium project - which he says will be groundbreaking in terms of the fan experience.

“It’s really exciting for us, and hopefully for them [Tottenham],” said Waller. “The fact that it’s a brand new stadium in London and part of the regeneration of the Tottenham area, that’s important. It will also be the first stadium with the dual-field system.

“We’ll be breaking new ground and that’s important for us and for our fans so they feel we are pioneering experiences for them and giving them the opportunity to be part of something unique.”

Growing NFL in the UK and Europe

In the NFL’s office in London, we are sitting in the Menelik Watson Room, which reflects how the NFL is making an impact here in the UK.

Watson, the Manchester-born Denver Broncos offensive tackle, has had a successful NFL career. He played college football at Florida State before being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2013 and is the poster boy for the NFL’s UK relationship.

Pointing at the huge picture of Watson on the wall, Waller says: “We’re working hard at the moment to identify athletes who could potentially make the grade at the NFL level. The great news is that we seeing a lot of grassroots participation now, so in the university level a lot of students are taking the sport up and forming teams.”

 

NFL on Regent Street is just one of the fan experiences (Harry Engels/Getty Images)

A Super Bowl in London?

With talk of a London franchise, Mexico matches and even a game in China in 2019 or 2020, would there ever be the possibility of the NFL Super Bowl being played outside the US? In London, to be precise?

While Waller says “never say never” he also said the game’s international growth is more important to the NFL’s long-term strategy. There’s also the issues of time zones, American traditions and the 32 team owners.

“I think that’s a really tough proposition,” he said. “If you look at it from the 32 owners’ perspective all of them would love to have it played in their stadium - and it hasn’t been played in remotely close to all 32 stadiums yet.

“Then there’s the time zone, which into Europe would be five- or six-hour difference to the east coast or eight [hours] with the west. It’s such an American festival and holiday that the practicability of moving it would be hard.

“I never say never because over time everything is possible but in the foreseeable future the focus on getting regular season games played and potentially getting franchises established is a much more realistic proposition than the Super Bowl.”

2017 NFL London fixtures and how to watch on TV

Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars

New Orleans Saints at Miami Dolphins

  • When: Sunday, 1 October 
  • Start time: 2.30pm 
  • Where: Wembley Stadium, London
  • Tickets: Individual tickets are sold out, hospitality packages are on sale at ticketmaster.co.uk/nfl 
  • TV coverage: Live on the BBC and via the NFL Game Pass 

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams

  • When: Sunday, 22 October 
  • Start time: 6pm 
  • Where: Twickenham Stadium, London 
  • Tickets: Individual tickets are sold out, hospitality packages are on sale at ticketmaster.co.uk/nfl
  • TV coverage: Live on Sky Sports and via the NFL Game Pass 

Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns

  • When: Sunday, 29 October 
  • Start time: 1.30pm 
  • Where: Twickenham Stadium, London 
  • Tickets: Individual tickets are sold out, hospitality packages are on sale at ticketmaster.co.uk/nfl 
  • TV coverage: Live on the BBC and via the NFL Game Pass 

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