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Skipping the London NFL Games

Unable to attend this year’s London NFL games, Senior NFL Writer Nick Dunkeyson takes a sideways look at attendance around the league, in person and on screen, and what it means for London now and in the future.

I didn’t get tickets to the London NFL games this year. No comment on the league, sport or quality of the games, just some events in my personal life (not bad ones, before you get the violins out) have meant that the games, for this year, were going to be a bit much to get to. I’m sure I’ll be back next year, but in the meantime it’s not as if the league is struggling to put bums on seats in my absence.

That’s right. Nearly 85,000 people turned up to Wembley this weekend. A new record in the UK, sure. But also worth noting: that’s probably going to be higher than the attendance for any game in the US this year. The only US stadium that can hold that many? The Coliseum in LA, base of the Rams. How are the Rams getting on this year?

Nasty. That’s not particularly representative of the NFL as a whole, but is fun as a comparison. So how is attendance doing in the NFL? Why are London NFL games so well attended? Is the sport struggling back home in America? If so, why?

London NFL Game Attendance

84,592. That’s not tremendously verifiable, but by all accounts Wembley was pretty damn full on Sunday. It’s 99.5% of the capacity of Wembley, and a long shot to claim only 408 people with tickets didn’t turn up. Illness, traffic blight, invoncenience generally account for about that much, without even considering corporate no-shows.

Let’s assume that all the London NFL games together average 98% of capacity, in line with recent years. That would be 83,300 for each of the Wembley games and 73,500 for the Twickenham games. That’d top out at 313,600. If that seems optimistic, the last time either stadium had a lower attendance than that was Wembley in 2008. The Stereophonics played the halftime show. Maybe that was why.

In any case, before we start to think about the long-term trends, there’s this. At the NFL fan event the day before Sunday’s game, Neil Reynolds said there were 40,000 season ticket holders. If, for example, there were five games next year, would you expect it to be much trickier to shift a similar number of tickets?

The Los Angeles Chargers play in the 30,000 capacity StubHub Center and have by all accounts struggled to fill it. Even with full attendance two home playoff games, they wouldn’t hit 313,000. Though the Chargers are an outlier in a league dominated by 60,000-70,000 capacity stadia.

NFL Attendance Stateside

Even beyond the Rams, empty stadiums are a bit of a trait this year, especially among teams that have recently moved. Be that the Chargers (111 miles from San Diego to LA) or the 49ers (40 miles from San Francisco to Santa Clara). Thus far, Atlanta seem to be doing better, but of course they are: they just got to the Super Bowl. Also, they’ve literally only moved across the road, and owner Arthur Blank has committed to keeping food and drink affordable, which helps.

Is this a problem? Well, thanks to the Packers’ public ownership and thus statutory reporting we know that in 2016 TV revenue exceeded gameday revenue. And note that too, that refers to all gameday revenue, including local broadcasts and jersey etc sales. If a team realises that it can alienate fans and still turn over sweet revenue, it’s one more option for it. Not that they are necessarily doing that, but. Consider also, there are stadia around the league where parking costs over $50. That’s not a small number. And you know, given how many of these are out-of-town, bereft of public transport links.

If it’s because NFL as a sport is more entertaining, and easier to keep track of via TV or Internet, that’s quite a knotty issue. I know this is an increasingly common opinion, and it’s one I agree with. Where you’ve got 30 second gaps between plays, a quick rewind is no bad thing. A game lasting three hours, with bursts of action but plenty of stops lends itself to fans sat in a room clowning and chatting about it. It means you can more easily watch, say, a specific offensive tackle/defensive end battle on a specific play without losing the flow of the game.

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Though heck, there are multitudinous stories of parents being discouraged from talking their kids to NFL games because they don’t want to expose them to drunk racists yelling obscenities. If that particular demographic were thinned out of the NFL fanbase a bit, I could live with that.

Are People Stopping Watching Too?

This could be a key point in the argument, if TV attendances were rising but actual attendance was decreasing. Then you remember that shelling out to watch NFL games on your TV or computer isn’t cheap. The NFL’s much-maligned Gamepass, which if you got lucky cost £106, is actually a pretty cheap way off watching NFL. Scary, huh?

Anyway, There was a lot of hand-wringing about attendances being down last year. This seemed to be due to a combination of economic factors and the quality on the field. Because make no mistake, there were a lot of bad games last year. This year? Well, weeks 1 and 2 were bad, but week 3 was fantastic. And right on cue:

Actually, what are the factors affecting changing NFL viewing patterns on TV is a much more interesting article, like this one by Spencer Hall at SB Nation. If young people are turning off, that’s potentially an enduring problem. If it’s because of an icky feeling about head collisions and CTE, it definitely is.

Sorry, Wasn’t This Piece About London NFL Games?

Yeah, it was. It seems increasingly like the long-term game is a “virtual” franchise in London. That would be eight regular season games a year, but no team based in London. Can’t decide if that’s better or worse. In my day job, one of the kind of overarching themes of the job I do is that we – as a country, be it individuals, organisations whatever – use less carbon. My first instinct with the idea of 16 teams flying to London each year is “oh gosh, all those flights.” I’m sure that’s not most peoples’ concern! Cutting out the International Series to save the planet is high-level rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, really.

Attendance, attention that the NFL demands in the UK suggests increasing games won’t be unsuccessful in the short-term. I’m not aware of any long-term worries either, though you’d have to ask a commercial specialist more about that.

At a guess though, the risk is that eventually, without having a team based here, fans don’t feel enough of a connection to stay bothered by London NFL games. The novelty may wear off, and a game may become less of an event. Without the emotional connection to games, maybe attendance would depend on the teams playing. So far London NFL games have gotten away with unappealing matchups, albeit ones which often produce cracking games.

But with every game you add, that gets a little more expensive. The further, even within London, that you spread it geographically, the bigger commitment it becomes. Two franchises have just been moved to LA without a fanbase there to support them, and it shows. So I see why increasing slowly. To test demand. Though of course the risk is you essentially tire people out before you’ve got maximum revenue from them. But we, as fans, shouldn’t give two hoots about whether the league is maximising its revenue streams, sorry.

How Skipping The London NFL Games Feels

Like I said, my reasons are personal but not bad, and they mean that really, there are more important things in life than sport. Having said that…

I think we’re still at the point in the lifecycle of London NFL games where FOMO is still in effect. I’m missing my Saints playing Editor-in-Chief Tom’s Dolphins this weekend. That’s bound to make me feel a bit wistful Sunday afternoon. You see jerseys from all thirty-two teams at London NFL games. As the NFL grows over here – and it does still seem to be doing so – people will continue to pick up teams. It’s all arbitrary, and it probably avoids some of the uglier manifestations of fandom across all sports.

But it means there’s a pull whenever your team plays. Eight games a year is potentially sixteen teams a year. That means that probably every couple of years, it’s going to be cheaper and convenient to see your team play in London than trek over to America. It won’t be the same, but it’ll still be good. While that continues, London NFL games will be well-attended. And skipping them, for whatever reason, will produce a pang.


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