Taking America’s game global: Mark Waller on the NFL’s international strategy

As the NFL returns to London on Sunday, Mark Waller, the league’s executive vice president of international, discusses the league’s growth outside the US and where the opportunities lie for the future.

Taking America’s game global: Mark Waller on the NFL’s international strategy

Mark Waller is no stranger to adapting to new environments. Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1959, the Briton studied Italian and Spanish at Durham University in England before teaching abroad in the Canary Islands. He later moved to Madrid to help set up the Spanish arm of Gallaher, a multinational tobacco company, which he left to join Guinness, and had a stint with the brewery in Barcelona before relocating to the United States.   

China and Greece complete the long list of Waller’s previous homes, and it seems appropriate that someone so well-travelled has now settled on spearheading the National Football League’s (NFL) international strategy. Appointed as the league’s executive vice president of international - a role designed specifically for him - in 2014, Waller has been tasked with taking America’s most popular sport global since 2006.

Waller’s first introduction to the game, however, was not a straightforward one. An ardent Tottenham Hotspur fan, he initially struggled with the complex rules and the stop-start nature of American football having grown up watching soccer, a sport which resonates globally because of its simplicity and in most cases is learned by doing. In essence, Waller embodied and experienced the persistent challenge the NFL faces when it comes to attracting international audiences but, once that barrier had been overcome, he recognised an untapped opportunity for the sport to expand around the world.  

Indeed, Waller has been a key figure in driving the NFL’s growth in the UK. Since staging its first regular season game at Wembley Stadium in 2007, the NFL has played 19 matches in the capital city of London, where Waller believes the foundations are in place for an NFL team to be based in the future.

This Sunday, the league returns to Twickenham Stadium, the home of English rugby union, where the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams will be made to feel right at home by a raucous sell-out crowd. As the NFL’s London road trip approached its final stretch for 2017, SportsPro caught up with Waller at this year’s edition of The Brand Conference at Lord’s Cricket Ground to discuss the league’s growth in the UK and to learn about its plans to expand into other markets.  

SportsPro: How much have you seen the NFL grow since the league first came to the UK in 2007?

Mark Waller: The growth has been spectacular. It’s great that we can now play four games here, sell out at all four stadiums and attract approximately 330,000 fans for those four games.

We’re also seeing huge growth in media consumption. We’ve had a fantastic season so far with Sky who have done a great job in improving and broadening our distribution, and then we have two weekly highlights shows on the BBC which is giving us an enormous amount of reach and incremental growth for new fans, so it’s an exciting time for us.

The NFL has staged at least one game in London every year since 2007

Do you think there is a ceiling or are there plans to stage more games in the UK? Could you envisage a point in time when we could even see a Super Bowl being held outside the US?

Is there a ceiling? I’m sure there is but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it yet.

I don’t think we need to keep adding games in order to drive our growth because we’ve got fantastic media, digital and content distribution, but it’s a great way to demonstrate our commitment to the fans that we’ve got and the marketplace that we’re in.

I think the Super Bowl is a really tough proposition. First of all it hasn’t been held in all of the 31 markets that we’re in, so there would be a lot of NFL owners who would say, “Hey, why don’t we get one before you take one to London?” Then the time zone issue is a really problematic one when it comes to something like the Super Bowl, with the five-hour time difference to the east coast and eight hours to the west coast, so I think the logistics of that would be tough.

I’m more focused on putting a team here [in the UK] than getting a Super Bowl here at the moment. If we get a team here we have more chance of getting a Super Bowl.        

Do you think the foundations have been laid for an NFL team to be based in the UK in the near future?

I think the foundations are definitely laid from a fan perspective, and we feel very confident in the fanbase, its passion and its commitment.

From a stadium perspective we’ve obviously done a lot of great work with Wembley, added in Twickenham and next year we’ll have the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium which means we’ll have plenty of places to play.

The one issue for us which we’re constantly working through is the logistics side of it and particularly the competitiveness. What we would never want to do is put a team in a market and then find that maybe the logistics prevent it from being competitive. So the one thing we’ve really got to test out is if a team could play year in, year out from the UK and still be competitive with the other 31 teams in the States, so that’s the big sort of threshold question we’ve got to answer.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have been widely linked with a permanent move to the UK

What was the thinking behind your ten-year deal with Tottenham Hotspur, and do you think the new stadium will enjoy similar success to Wembley and Twickenham?

We’ve always been very clear that part of our fan experience is giving fans the opportunity to get the best that’s available. We were fortunate to be in the new Wembley when it opened in 2007 - we were involved in one of the first games ever played there - and we were the first ever non-rugby event to be played at Twickenham, so the idea of being in this brand new stadium which is part of a much broader regeneration of that particular area will give our fans another unique experience.

The technology that’s going into Tottenham’s stadium and the infrastructure for the two-field system is something which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and that’s important for us, too, because we want our fans to feel that they get things that are truly unique and different.       

What have been some of the challenges to developing the NFL outside of the US, and how have you tried to overcome them?

The biggest barrier is understanding the game. If you think about sports in the UK, you grow up with those sports, so you don’t consciously have to make an effort to learn the rules of soccer or rugby - maybe cricket a little bit because it’s a complex game - because you essentially learn those games by living and being part of them going on around you.

Is there a ceiling? I’m sure there is but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it yet.

For American football, because you don’t grow up with it, it’s actually that barrier of understanding which is the biggest one to overcome. We have a lot of awareness - almost everyone in the world knows American football and knows there’s a Super Bowl - but people don’t understand the rules.

The challenge is getting people over that barrier of understanding, so digital and social media have become a huge tool for us. Historically, to overcome that barrier you have to play the game; you have to put a ball in everyone’s hand or at everyone’s feet. Now, you don’t have to do that because you can teach people the fundamentals and the basics on digital and social media, so that technology is allowing us to overcome that barrier much more readily and easily.

How much do you try to help fans understand the cultural side of the NFL when you’re promoting the sport around the world?

It’s a huge part of who we are. It’s called American football, so you can’t extricate the sport from the country. It’s by far the most popular sport in America and therefore by definition we’re going to be representative of the culture and hopefully we’ll do a good job of helping build out what we do best. We unify communities, we bring people together and we give them exceptional experiences that ultimately matter to them. So we see that as being our job in terms of reinforcing the culture that we represent. 

Mark Waller, executive vice president of international for the NFL

The NFL recently relaunched its Game Pass OTT broadcast platform in Europe. How important is that to your growth in terms of helping to develop that understanding of the game, especially in an age when OTT is becoming increasingly important?

It’s hugely important. Again, one of the things we pride ourselves on is being ahead of trends and being able to see where consumption is going.

As with any new initiative you take some risks, and we’ve definitely had some issues in the transition of the product this year, because fans were very used to Game Pass as it used to be and are very passionate about that product. I compare it to when you get a new phone on a different system; it might be a better phone, but the fact that the buttons are in a different place and the widgets are different means it can initially be a frustrating experience. So we’re working through that at the moment with our fans.

Ultimately, though, that is where consumption is going to be and we need to be at the forefront of ensuring that we can deliver a good OTT product to our fans.

You’re staging another game in Mexico in November. What was the thinking behind going back into that market?

We have a massive fanbase in Mexico of about 23 million avid fans. The first ever regular season game outside the US was actually played in Mexico in 2005 between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, so that’s a massive opportunity market for us, and if you look at the US market, the demographic shift is increasingly Hispanic within the States so it really is critically important for us.

Are there any other markets that the NFL is targeting?

We have a narrow focus of markets. Canada, Mexico, the UK and China would be our priority markets, and then Germany and Brazil are probably the next two development markets for us. We have good global distribution, so if you’re a fan around the world you can get our product almost anywhere, but in terms of building out fanbases it would be those six markets.