A potential return to Los Angeles dominated the headlines leading into the NFL Annual Meeting earlier this week. Inside the room, owners were apprised that the league is being just as aggressive beyond the borders of its home country.
The NFL's efforts in London are still at the forefront, to be sure, but are only part of the equation now as the league is moving to broaden its efforts internationally. As the league sees it, the next group of countries to zero in on are Mexico, Canada and China, and it won't stop there.
"The work we're doing now is to ask, 'How do we accelerate the agenda in Mexico, Canada and China?'" said Mark Waller, NFL EVP, International. "Those would be our next stage, and we have offices in those three countries. And then, after those, where should be our focus? I think we've concluded that Brazil and Germany are the next two frontier markets, which is where the Pro Bowl idea comes from."
The league has, indeed, considered moving the February 2017 Pro Bowl to Brazil, in an effort to introduce the game and its stars to the world's fifth-largest populace. Germany, on the other hand, is developed as a football-watching public well beyond needing that, and will soon be in consideration for a regular-season game.
With that in mind, here's a look at where things stand following the owner' meetings ...
» Asked if the NFL remains on track to reach its goal of having a team full-time in London by 2022, Waller responded, "Absolutely." Had it not been for the Rugby World Cup, the league would've gone to four games in London this year, so it's a good bet that happens in 2016. Also, the NFL has a base of 40,000 fans who bought tickets for all three games for this year. The vast majority of those 40,000 are local to London, and bought tickets for all three games last year, which, in the league's eyes, represents the formation of a potential season-ticket base.
» The NFL sent a team to Mexico City two weeks ago to visit stadiums in the area, and left knowing that work still needed to be done. But the league is now starting to look at expanding the International Series to include regular-season games outside the U.K., with 2017 being a target, and Mexico and Germany are the focus of those efforts. In Germany, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf are the likeliest sites, with Berlin and Munich also under consideration.
» Additionally, the league is starting to look at options to bring some form of preseason football to Mexico in the short term -- it could be a team having a part of training camp there, it could be a set of scrimmages.
» The overriding issue in Germany (which had five of six NFL Europe teams, and has produced NFL players) remains television distribution. The league has been able to get its playoff games and the Super Bowl on the air, but has struggled to find a carrier for the regular season.
» Development in Canada remains steady. Meanwhile, the focus in China is on media rights, particularly digitally, with the league looking to distribute its product online.
The easiest way to look at this -- the NFL is comfortable enough with its growth in the U.K. to start similar projects elsewhere.
All three games in London have sold out, and part of the logistical problem there has been mitigated too with two resolutions passed in October that will help facilitate the growth to more than three games over the next few years.
The first one stipulates that if teams are relocating -- and one or two very well may be in 2016 -- they have to give up a home game in each of their transitional years, the seasons between the move being announced and a new stadium opening. The second says that teams that win a Super Bowl bid have to give up a home game within a five-year period.
Both should help keep the well of teams going to London (or elsewhere) from running dry, and allow continued growth as the league works toward a permanent franchise in the U.K. And of course, the International Series has moved to a phase that will test how a full-time franchise there would work, with the introduction of back-to-back games and a division game this year, and the possible addition of a December game and removal of the automatic byes afforded to traveling teams soon.
"We're testing it from a fan standpoint, from a stadium standpoint," said Waller. "Will the field stand up? We've had issues there, so this year will be big playing the games back-to-back. The rest of the work is internal, on what to do next. We're thinking through the next steps."
And clearly, all of those steps are being taken forward.