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The NFL Looking To Ensure Future In Europe

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The trip by the Dallas Cowboys to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in London is part of a long term, very patient plan to increase the presence of American professional football overseas.

Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL International series is in its eighth year. Since 2007, NFL teams have played at least one game each season in London's Wembley Stadium, and the number of games played there each year is increasing. 2013 saw two games played, and three games are scheduled for both 2014 and 2015.

The Dallas Cowboys are participating for the first time this year. They are playing the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are the only team in the league to agree to host one game a year for multiple, consecutive years (in return, they get a larger payout than other teams do).

The Jaguars bring some reliability to the series, since that is one team a year the NFL does not have to badger and coax to give up a home game as the host in London, and Dallas brings the glitz and the glam, as well as ratings.

Logistically, the trip is a bit of a nightmare for all involved. Both teams go over for an entire week and work out in borrowed facilities. On an individual team basis, the entire exercise is likely a money loser, since some teams lose additional revenues such as concessions and parking. For the home towns, there is also a large economic loss, and several NFL cities have inserted clauses in the stadium leases to protect themselves.

However, the NFL has now countered with its own leverage that may lead to some reconsideration of the issue.

NFL owners voted last month to require that teams aspiring to host a Super Bowl play a home game in London within five years of their successful bid process.

This is one of the examples of a conflict of interest between the NFL as a whole and the individual teams (which, of course, comprise the league). And it all reinforces the underlying truth that the National Football League is first, last, and always about making money.

The entire justification for the International Series is in growing the market for the NFL outside of the United States. So far, it has just been in London, at least partly because there is now a procedure and some infrastructure in place to keep from having to start from scratch. At some point, the league may want to broaden its horizon and have a game or games in other locations. Three logical choices would be: Germany, where American football seems to be more popular than in just about any other European country; Japan, to get exposure in the Asian markets; and Mexico, where the league as a whole and several individual franchises, including Dallas, are already quite popular.

Economics are driving the whole international idea. In the US, the league has largely maxed out the main target demographic, males over 25. It is trying to expand the fan base among women, but may have already started to approach the ceiling there. This means that domestically the league is facing a limitation of only being able to grow as fast as the population does, and with the fastest growing demographic in the US coming from nations where that other football is far more popular, there are legitimate concerns about audience stagnation.

The international audience is relatively untapped, and even if the NFL only gets a small percentage of potential foreign fans engaged, it is still looking at tens or even hundreds of millions of new followers. This gives the league a vested interest in having games overseas, and perhaps in one day moving a franchise there.

Every game played overseas helps with expanding the market, but costs the participating teams and the home city of the team that hosts the game. It is a case of immediate, local goals conflicting with longer range range objectives of the league as a whole. All the owners see the value of playing more games overseas, they just don't necessarily feel that their team should be playing them. Hence, the league comes up with incentives like extra money for the Jaguars and requiring teams to host a game outside the country to qualify for a Super Bowl. And with only a handful of teams directly impacted each year, the collective ownership can pressure a few of their number each year to make sure someone participates.

Expect to see the International Series not only continue, but grow beyond the three games scheduled for 2015. Actually moving a team overseas is going to take a good bit longer. The NFL is going to put a higher priority on getting a franchise in Los Angeles first. Finding a team for the biggest untapped domestic market offers much more immediate payoffs than setting up a team in England or elsewhere. Various issues are making the return to Tinseltown a challenge, and such a move will then take a likely candidate for the overseas project off the table. Another problem that has gotten a bit less attention is that having a team in London or other foreign city affects more than just one team. It also involves that team's division. Three other franchises would face an annual trip across the ocean, which is going to make some rather unhappy.

Dallas has now had its turn in the barrel. According to the NFL.com article cited above, there are now only 12 teams that have not played or been scheduled to play in Wembley during the current series. It will probably be several seasons before the Cowboys make the trip again.

But they will make it. It is almost certain.