The European version of the NFL’s International Series closed Sunday with the most competitive of the four games played in London this season. The margin of victory was 17 points in a contest that pitted a franchise with one playoff victory in its past 12 seasons against another that has the league’s worst record during this century.
May we be blunt for a moment? The NFL delivered the United Kingdom a weak on-field product in 2017, even as fans appeared to embrace the game and league with its usual fervor. There were two shutouts and another game that finished 44-7 before the Minnesota Vikings “edged” the Cleveland Browns 33-16 on Sunday.
Even the NFL’s GamePass product, offered to European customers as a live streaming option for weekly games, has encountered third-party technological problems and prompted a 20 percent refund earlier this month.
All of this brings the NFL to a crossroads in the International Series. After drawing UK fans to the spectacle of a game that counts, must the league produce a better product to continue its growth in London? Or is the show itself enough to maintain their interest?
Competitiveness and quality of play have been an issue since the NFL began staging regular-season games in London in 2007. During that period, the average margin of victory has been 15.9 points. (That includes a 27-27 tie between the Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals in 2016.) Eight of the 21 games have been decided by 20 or more points.
In an interview with ESPN UK, NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood acknowledged that this season’s games were “disappointing” from a competitive standpoint but said there was not much the league could do about it.
“You can’t control what’s on the field,” Kirkwood said. “The whole season [in the NFL] has proven that. There is some really surprising results, week in and week out. We haven’t necessarily had the most competitive of games. I think that’s absolutely fair to say.”
Kirkwood predicted that 2018 will bring better games because “things swing around” in cycles. He also noted that the sellout crowds, which averaged 84,000 at Wembley and 74,000 at the smaller Twickenham Stadium, stayed in their seats through the end of the game.
“Back in the States,” he said, “even if a home team is winning really, really substantially, you’ll find midway through the fourth quarter people will be making their way out. … Maybe our spirit is just making our money’s worth out of these things. But it’s not gone unnoticed.”
Indeed, there is no outward sign that UK fans are growing impatient. The NFL on Regent Street event draws as many as 600,0000 annually. There were no issues with selling tickets when the NFL expanded to four games this season at two stadiums. According to the NFL, in fact, about 40,000 people bought tickets to all four games — the making of a strong fan base. But it’s clear that the transatlantic trip creates competitive trouble for some teams, especially as the NFL tries to spread the assignment around.
Some coaches and general managers take extraordinary measures to compensate. The Vikings, for example, shipped over food that was familiar to their players to homogenize the experience as much as possible. Others are left angry about the burden. After his team took that 44-7 loss in Week 3, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he doesn’t “plan on going over there anytime soon to play again.”
Harbaugh invited somebody else to “have that job.” Even after 10 years of games in London, he added, “there were some certain things that came up that you look at it and you go, ‘That wasn’t ideal.’ But we really had no way of knowing that. Some things we have no control over. We have no control where we stay, how far the bus ride is, how long it takes to get to the stadium. What impact it had are things we look at.”
A total of 26 teams have made the trip at least once, and Kirkwood said he is focused on the remaining six for the 2018 schedule. That list contains the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks. Five of those teams have winning records in 2017, while the Texans are 3-4.
New teams provide a fresh marketing template for the NFL, of course, and the league should have another tool in the new Tottenham Stadium, set to open in 2018. The NFL participated in its design and is under contract to play at least two games there annually once it is ready. Capacity at Tottenham, it’s worth noting, will be 61,559 — more than 20,000 fewer than at Wembley and 15,000 fewer than Twickenham.
In the backdrop to those issues was another growing pain. The primary app for UK GamePass users has not always worked. And according to the Independent, the third-party company that developed the app admitted to posting fake reviews that overstated its effectiveness. Ultimately, the NFL offered refunds that equated to about $36 per customer.
The good news for the NFL is that there appears to be a decent European market for streaming games live. It also can carry the momentum of selling some 332,000 tickets to four games that featured only one playoff team from 2016. But it’s far from clear that it can simply conjure more competitive games based the teams involved. The real question, of course, is whether it matters. We shall see.