We sometimes take for granted the fact that the NFL dominates the sporting culture in this country, but has a far less secure grip on the global market. The league has much to accomplish in terms of attracting international fans and spreading youth football outside of the U.S., and Commissioner Roger Goodell has been steadfast about the need to pursue innovations and measures to nurture the game on a world-wide platform.
Two weeks ago, the league made another bold move in that direction, one that could ultimately strengthen its foothold abroad and hasten its development in Europe.
The NFL hired Lord Brian Mawhinney as a special advisor to NFL International, a move that went virtually unnoticed in the States but created more fanfare in the United Kingdom. Mawhinney's vast network of contacts and influence in the UK cannot be underestimated. He was a member of Parliament from 1979-2005, including serving as a cabinet member for three years, and for the past seven years he was one of the highest-ranking officials in English soccer. He is plugged in at every level of British sport, culture, business and politics, and there could be no better ambassador for our version of football in that part of the world.
"I would be disappointed if there weren't some things I have learned in the last seven or eight years being the executive chairman of The Football League (all branches of professional soccer in England below the top, Premier League) in this country that would be beneficial to NFL International as we build a solid foundation for the future," Mawhinney said in a phone interview from his home.
Crossing the pond
"We're at the very beginning of the relationship as you understand, and I've had just one long in-depth meeting and another one is planned in a couple of weeks' time and we will build on that in the future. In whatever way the NFL thinks I can help them, I'm very happy to do so.
"If it involves an element of networking, then that's fine. I guess I have some sense of the big companies in this country that might be interested in the element of sports sponsorship or partnership in some form or another. And for my part, I'm looking forward to getting to know the NFL family better and to meeting the owners of clubs and to learn what's on their minds and what are the issues they have that they think I might be able to assist them with."
Mawhinney has met Goodell on several occasions, and a few years back flew to New York to spend half a day with Goodell in his office and then spent the rest of the day with Giants' officials at their headquarters. He speaks modestly, but Mawhinney is a heavy hitter in every sense of the word and an NFL fan thoroughly committed to cultivating our game in Europe.
At some point, if the NFL is going to sustain its growth in terms on the quality of the product on the field and success of its business model, then adopting more of a world-wide appeal will be imperative. As parochial as many of us are about America's game, and understandably so -- as football is decidedly of our culture -- sharing it with the rest of the world is the next step.
This will be the fourth straight season in which London's Wembley Stadium will host an NFL game, and if/when the "enhanced schedule" of 18 regular-season games comes to fruition, look for the number of games abroad to at least double. I continue to believe that we will see a Super Bowl in London as well as an NFL franchise there within our lifetime -- my guess would be at least one of them within 15 years. Just this week in London, still in the afterglow of soccer's World Cup, 49ers owner John York, chair of the league's international committee, said: "I'm not sure what will happen first, a Super Bowl over here or an NFL team, but they both seem likely to happen."
Football might not always be just our sport. Embrace the concept now, because in a global economy competition extends beyond just Major League Baseball and the NBA. And the more rewards the NFL can reap from international consumers -- to say nothing of merchandising, marketing and television rights -- the less of a burden is placed on the American fan to sustain the football economy. That's where someone like Mawhinney has unparalleled expertise.
When he took over The Football League in England (again, essentially the tiers of soccer below the global powerhouse English Premier League), it was in disarray with clubs losing money, poor television contracts and struggling to reclaim its place with consumers. Those leagues blossomed with him as caretaker, reorganizing and rebranding the leagues to the point where The Championship (essentially England's AAA soccer) was the fourth-highest attended league in all of Europe (outpacing the top level of soccer in most other countries). He secured essential sponsorships and partnerships with UK companies, experiences that could translate directly to the NFL's desire to attract the attention of more of those same corporations in the European marketplace.
"We plan to utilize his success in various fields to help us continue, and accelerate, the growth of our sport and our business in the UK," said Alistair Kirkland, managing director of NFL UK.
Seems to me, there is much synergy that could be gained by greater networking and cooperation between the EPL and NFL. The U.S. model -- with a salary cap and more widespread revenue sharing -- could save some English soccer clubs. Conversely, the way in which the EPL has tapped into far-flung markets, and sold its brand worldwide would have unearthed some cherished information about those consumers as far as their habits and desires. As much as both of these leagues are in essence, competing for someone shopping for sports merchandise -- whether he or she be in Toledo or Glasgow -- there is also much they could share so that both gain.
"I think big sports can learn from each other," Mawhinney said, acknowledging there is competition between the NFL and EPL, but in his estimation, "not in a head-to-head" fashion. "I spent quite a bit of time at The Football League trying to establish some kind of salary cap ... so you've got something right there that soccer could learn from the NFL, and I certainly suspect there are things soccer does that the NFL can learn from. And part of my job here is to help NFL International bridge that gap."
Though Mawhinney was somewhat reluctant to speak about a timetable for a London franchise or a London Super Bowl, given that he has just come on board, he acknowledged the merits of both hypothetically, and I suspect we will hear more and more about both ideas throughout this decade. To me, nothing would win over an international audience like the existence of a team abroad, and with just one game a week and a relatively short NFL season, the travel costs and hurdles will not impede that idea. It's also the best way to establish a youth football presence and to grow the game at a grassroots level.
"You can see that from another sellout here at Wembley, and that's 85,000 people, there's a good base," Mawhinney said. "The next step will be, I assume, we can move two games a season and build it up so that we can see a direction of travel, one which I would want to offer encouragement to as long as it was built and developed. But I am in absolutely no position right now to put a timeframe on it, as I just don't know enough about it just yet ... But as an idea, as a goal worth exploring and pursuing, count me in."
"Oh, yes, I believe it would be a success, big time," Mawhinney said. "You combine the brand awareness and the event organizing skill of the NFL, with all that London can offer, including economically, socially and politically ... they're made for each other. But I don't think it would be sensible to rush into doing it. If it is to happen it has to flow out of a continuous build up so that it makes sense to everybody."
If New York 2014 goes as well as I expect it to, then London 2024 won't be out of the question (the city will have hosted the Olympics, and likely another World Cup by then as well). And if the NFL does in fact accomplish some of these broader goals, no doubt that Mawhinney's knowledge and influence will have had something to do with it.
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