Q&A: With Sunday's final 2016 London game, how the NFL is setting itself up for world growth

Published Oct. 30, 2016

Sunday's game between the Redskins and Bengals at Wembley Stadium is the third and final regular-season game to be staged in London this fall as part of the NFL's International Series, which was launched a decade ago. The Washington Post spoke with Mark Waller, executive vice president of NFL International, about the NFL's interest in overseas markets and London, specifically, where the league has targeted most of its marketing efforts.

A British national, Waller joined the NFL in 2006 and became its chief marketing officer in 2009, overseeing the league's marketing and international activities. In 2014 he was named NFL International executive vice president, charged with overseeing the league's international growth. Here's a bit of what Waller had to say:

Q: What do you know about the existing NFL fan-base in the United Kingdom?

Waller: We have approximately 13 million fans in the UK, of which we would consider 3.5 (million) to be avid fans. That's a number we get from annual fan-tracking surveys we do about self-expressed interest in the NFL, the same surveys we use in the U.S. We have an interesting split of core fans. (There are) fans who got to know the game in the 1980s when it arrived in the UK via a new TV channel called Channel 4, which focused on the NFL as one of their new sports. So people of my age, early 50s to late 50s, would have grown up with it in the '80s. Then we have a new generation of 18- to 25-year-olds who have grown up with it in the last 10 years as we've built the International Series.

Q: Do British NFL fans also follow the traditionally popular British sports as well, or is their sports interest peculiar to the NFL?

Waller: Any fan base of any sport in the UK is likely to have an incidence of overlap with soccer, which is such a huge and popular sport. Quite probably you'll find here a number of fans of rugby and cricket as well.

Q: The NFL is in its 10th year staging regular-season games in London; Sunday's Redskins-Bengals game will be the 16th game hosted by Wembley in the last decade. From the NFL's perspective, what would constitute success in this market? What is your goal?

Waller: We would aspire to be a top-three sport measured by audience and popularity, and we would want to do that within the next five to eight years. How would that manifest itself? We'd like to think that we could play a full season of games here, whether with multiple teams or with one team, that there would be enough fan demand to sustain a team if we should put one here, or if not, play a season of games here.

Q: What's the hierarchy of sports in the UK? What would the NFL have to overtake in order to be a top-three sport?

Waller: Soccer is by far the most popular. Then Formula One racing. Probably rugby and cricket are next.

Q: So you might sell a season ticket to eight NFL "home" games in London, whether for a London-based team or a rotating slate of existing NFL team?

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Waller: Yes, we're now selling a mini-season ticket. You as a fan here can buy tickets to the three games we're playing this season (the Oct. 2 Jaguars-Colts game and Oct. 30 Redskins-Bengals games at Wembley; the Oct. 23 Rams-Giants game at Twickenham Stadium).

Q: What makes London the most viable of the overseas markets that NFL international is interested in, including German, Mexico, Canada and Asia?

Waller: Canada and Mexico give us proximity; they're a heartland for us, to make sure we're strong in North America. (Mexico City's Estadio Azteca will host a game Nov. 21 between the Texans and Raiders). When we play games in Europe, we're able to broadcast live in Asia. A 1:30 p.m. kickoff in Europe is 8:30 p.m. on Sunday in Asia, so Europe give us a springboard into Asia. But the UK is the second-biggest sports market in the world in terms of number of sports fans, the number of sports that people are following and the value of the media market. So it's great from a fan's perspective. And it's also got an interesting set of venues to play in.