After kicking off in 2007, the expansion of the US's National Football League (NFL) into the UK market has been a victory for the multi-billion-dollar American football league, with sell-out crowds at Wembley stadium and the one annual game increasing to four. The success of the series has even sparked talk of having a permanent franchise in London. Most speculation centres around the Jacksonville Jaguars, owned by billionaire businessman Shahid Khan, who also owns London-based soccer club Fulham.
The economic impact on the host location is clear. A report by consultancy Deloitte estimated the total direct economic impact of the 2013 NFL International Series on the London economy at £32m ($41.5m). The potential direct impact to London of hosting an NFL franchise permanently is estimated to be £102m.
A home from home
But does the US city sending its team over to London for a game lose out? On the face of it, yes. For the team that would have otherwise hosted a ‘home’ game, the one-off loss of food and beverage sales, parking revenue and other economic benefits that would have been injected into the community surrounding the local stadium is instead spent on pints of beer outside a stadium thousands of kilometres away.
There is a bigger issue at play, though. The international exposure that an overseas game offers can pay dividends if utilised correctly. While some franchise cities that have come to London, such as New York, Miami and Washington, DC, are well known globally, many others – such as Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh – are not. Some have made better use of the opportunity than others.
“Essentially any ‘home’ team has given up a very valuable asset in the US in order to be able to play in the UK. So generally speaking the teams that are more aggressive about promoting [themselves] when they go to London are the home teams, because they have sacrificed [something] in their [own] market and part of the argument and positioning in favour of these games is that it is good for the local community to be seen and promoted in the UK and internationally,” says Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president in charge of international expansion.
“The general rule of thumb is the teams that do a better job of promoting locally when they come over would be those home teams.”
Many of the cities have hosted potential investors at pre-game gatherings and taken them to the games as VIPs. Treating the occasion like a trade and investment delegation while soaking up the city’s brief moment in the international sports spotlight can be a win-win.
The sports-mad southern city of Atlanta has organised popular business networking events around its professional football and basketball teams’ games in London, including a well-attended bash at the iconic Tower of London ahead of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2014 ‘home’ game in the UK.
“We have found the NFL and National Basketball Association games in London to be great opportunities to promote trade and investment between the UK and metro Atlanta. I include both trade and investment because we view the games as dual purpose: certainly a chance to highlight Atlanta to our selected UK audience, but also a reason to invite Atlanta companies that may be considering overseas expansion to join our trips to London and meet appropriate contacts there,” says John Woodward, senior director, foreign investment, at the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
“I don’t think I can say we have specifically closed an FDI deal right there between the third and fourth quarters, but bringing our folks and folks there to enjoy a game has definitely built and strengthened relationships to bring about such deals.”
Mr Waller points to Jacksonville, Florida, as a prime example of a city capitalising on its transatlantic appearances: the Jacksonville Jaguars have committed to give up one of their 10 allotted home games every season to London and therefore need to see a return on this sacrifice. The team works with Floridian economic development organisations on a promotional game plan for the International Series and also lobbies locally to demonstrate the long-term value of sacrificing these home games for the greater good of international promotion.
“The Jaguars have done a very good job of showcasing the economic value of this kind of exposure and they’ve been able to demonstrate real economic results back in Jacksonville in terms of job creation from companies that have been engaged through these London visits,” says Mr Waller.
JaxUSA Partnership, a private non-profit initiative promoting economic development in north-east Florida, has led a delegation to London in conjunction with the game each year and makes a concerted effort to build new relationships and meet with companies the city continues to work with, according to JaxUSA president Jerry Mallot.
“Shad Khan and Jaguars executives have played a critical role in opening some doors for us and we make it a point to bring our mayor and city council president on the economic development missions with us,” he says. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us to tell Jacksonville’s story. When we can get on the radar of businesses looking to invest, we do well. This is another strategic way for us to introduce Jacksonville to the world.”
While the focus is on long-term international business relationships, Mr Mallot says Jacksonville has seen immediate impact from its UK missions. Since the Jaguars started playing in London in 2013, four FDI projects have come to Jacksonville – creating nearly 1000 jobs and more than $21m in capital investment – as a direct result.
On the 2015 trip, for example, Jacksonville closed two deals while in the UK, according to Mr Mallot. Resource Solutions, a human resources firm specialising in the financial services industry, chose Jacksonville as the location for its fourth Global Resource Centre and is hiring at least 75 people. Also, City Facilities Management Refrigeration chose Jacksonville to open its North American headquarters, and is hiring 110 people.
On the 2016 visit, the city finalised a start-up exchange partnership with ConnectIreland to open up investment and collaboration opportunities, strategically aligning Jacksonville with an area that is targeting similar industries – from financial services and healthcare technology to advanced manufacturing and aviation and aerospace.
“Part of the growth is consistency: Jacksonville is the only NFL city to have a game in London every year. Our team and city has increased from the least recognised name to [one of the most] recognised names in the NFL. The Jaguars have created that name recognition and a sense of relationship between our two cities,” says Mr Mallot.
Jaguars president Mark Lamping agrees. “Whenever you can put Jacksonville and London in the same sentence, that's quite a benefit to Jacksonville,” he says. “Teams that operate in big markets, it's really difficult for them to move home games out of those markets, but in the smaller markets we have a legitimate goal to try to create revenue streams, to hopefully offset a little bit of the impact to the [local economy]. It just works much better and it's legitimate.”
Despite the FDI project wins secured in London, the Jaguars are struggling on the field, having failed to make it to the play-offs for the ninth consecutive season last year and firing its coach as a result. This, coupled with a related inability to fill its stadium for home games, as well as its owner’s UK sporting ties, has sparked speculation that the team might find a permanent home in London.
Mr Lamping will not be drawn on whether the Jaguars would make such a move. “We're committed to play one game a year [in London]. We're very happy with what that's done for us, it's made a more stable franchise, created opportunities for Jacksonville, and we're really proud to be able to play our part to help the NFL develop the game in the UK," he says.
The NFL’s Mr Waller adds that “there’s not any truth to the specifics” about a Jaguars move but does not rule out the possibility of the UK’s capital one day having its own franchise. “If you look at the sporting landscape and the map of where we could play, London is an unbelievably attractive opportunity and logistically increasingly feasible for us,” he says. “It’s our job to make sure the UK market is ready, so if any owner was to decide that that’s something they wanted to pursue, we have to make sure we have a large enough fan base to sustain it and stadiums to play in.” Game on.