NEW YORK -- “Live from London, welcome to the Super Bowl.”
Might those words soon be uttered by TV broadcasters at the first ever Super Bowl held outside the U.S.?
“We know there is tremendous interest by a number of cities here in the U.S. and in Europe in hosting the game. We have not analyzed the concept of a city like London hosting the Super Bowl, but it's something we may look at in the future,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
While it’s not clear to sports business and marketing experts whether moving the most hyped, watched and expensive event in U.S. sports to London would necessarily be a moneymaker for the league, it’s definitely sparked a debate in the meantime.
Simply put, the Super Bowl is enormous. More than 139 million viewers from 232 countries tuned in to CBS (CBS) to watch the Indianapolis Colts take the crown last year. This year’s match-up in Arizona between the undefeated New England Patriots and heavy underdog New York Giants could draw even more viewers for News Corp.’s (NWS) FOX Network. News Corp. is also the parent company of FOXBusiness.com.
The league may decide that moving the Super Bowl across the pond would enhance the sport’s prominence and popularity in Europe, thus improving the NFL’s brand there. Experts said such a move would likely be to test the waters for either creating a replacement for the now-defunct NFL Europe league or something much more controversial: expanding the league to include two non-U.S. based teams.
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“I like that the NFL is not sitting on [its] hands and taking [its] position in American sports for granted. I think that’s smart of them. They are pushing the envelope,” said Marshall Glickman, CEO of sports consulting firm G2 Strategic and former president of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers.
To be sure, there are a series of obstacles that must be tackled before any crowning of an NFL champion in a foreign country is possible (and even more before expanding the league there).
For starters, the NFL needs to continue building its brand overseas, experts said. The league has already said it plans to repeat its successful match up between the Giants and Miami Dolphins, who played in front of a sold-out Wembley Stadium in London this past season. Expect more of the same or even a Pro Bowl overseas before the league commits to putting the Big Game in England.
Also, NFL cities may resent being kept out of the bidding to hold the Super Bowl in their hometown. While there is still much debate over whether or not the benefit of hosting a Super Bowl outweighs the costs of building new venues (which may run several hundred million dollars), the league uses the game as a carrot to entice cities to throw public funding into the stadium projects.
“That’s exactly why there is a new stadium in Arizona. I would be very, very surprised if they want to use one of their chits in this fashion,” said Victor Matheson, professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
How might everyday fans react to shifting the game overseas?
“If you take the Super Bowl over to London, I can guarantee you that no NFL executives’ car tires are going to be safe wherever they go,” said Rodney Fort, a professor at the University of Michigan and established sports business expert. Fort cited the “howl” that would come from fans complaining it would be tougher to attend the game overseas.
Then again, few would refer to the Super Bowl in its current form as easily accessible.
“It’s very difficult for a true fan to be able to get a Super Bowl ticket from anywhere but a secondary service considering the allocation of tickets to fans is so small,” said Sean Pate, head of corporate communications at eBay’s (EBAY) secondary ticket marketplace StubHub. He would know: nose-bleed seats to this year’s game on StubHub sold for well over $2,000, and the best seats in the house went for more than $10,000 a piece.
“That would be like having the Tour de France ending in San Francisco. I don’t think you mess with success,” said Greg Bettinelli, director of business development at StubHub.
TV networks could stand to make more money from the game if putting it in a foreign country brings new viewers out of the woodwork.
When FIFA sent its premiere event, the World Cup, to the U.S. in 1994 it was viewed as a widely successful move, despite the fact that Americans aren’t considered huge soccer fans.
“There was a huge increase in ratings for 1994 and the really big thing is that it led to the MLS (Major League Soccer) starting a few years later,” said Matheson, who isn’t in favor of moving the Super Bowl out of the country.
It’s not clear if a Super Bowl in London would still be aired during prime time because of the time difference. Moving the game off from the premium time slots could lessen the number of possible domestic viewers.
“It’s the Super Bowl -- that’s not going to hurt ratings. In fact, I would argue it makes it more of a spectacle of the game and more people will watch because of it,” said Glickman. He pointed to the solid ratings GE’s (GE) NBC received when it recently aired a rare outdoor NHL game in Buffalo.
The dozens of corporations that align themselves with the NFL franchises and the Super Bowl through sponsorships would enjoy more exposure from an international game.
“I think it could certainly open up some marketing opportunities overseas for companies like us that do have divisions in the U.K,” said Jenny Volanakis, spokeswoman at Molson Coors Brewing Company (TAP). Coors Light is a major sponsor of the NFL and also the Patriots and Giants.
The level of success from the NFL’s next regular season game in Europe will likely have a big impact on what the league decides to do.
“My assessment from the outside looking in, it just seems like the negatives outweigh the positives…But we don’t know what they are thinking about in terms of the expected future value of doing this. Maybe to them it’s a no-brainer,” said Fort.