The NFL Is Lying About Its Popularity

The NFL claims one in five Britons watched NFL programming last year. Sadly, they're not the only ones who believe this.

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Oct 8 2014, 11:40am

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Despite limited returns, the NFL has long had a fascination with Europe. Beginning in earnest with NFL Europe in 1991, the league has spent more than two decades trying to leave a mark on the continent. As the New York Times reported in 2007, the NFL sunk some $400-500 million into the defunct minor league system across the Atlantic. The London team was disbanded in 1998, replaced by a team in Berlin. By the league's final year, five of the six teams played in Germany and some came to regard the league as a giant USO show that mostly entertained the American military serving at German bases.

Even with this half-billion dollar boondoggle, the NFL's attempted continental takeover continued unabated. The same year NFL Europe shuttered its doors, the NFL predicted it would host games in Germany, Mexico, and Canada, with "Germany being a strong candidate to host a regular-season game in 2008." While the Bills played several games in Toronto, football didn't return to Mexico—the first regular season game played abroad took place in Mexico City in 2005—or make the foreshadowed German debut. But the NFL did start the International Series in London, its annual logistical nightmare of playing regular season games across an ocean.

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As usual, the NFL wants you to believe it is perfect. It tries to paint the picture that its steadfast dedication to an agnostic market has been equal parts shrewd business and long con. After this year's first London game, Jenny Vrentas of the MMQB—a site run by Peter King, who is constantly chided as being a branded NFL megaphone—went into detail on the NFL's expensive and elaborate efforts to bring the game to the U.K.

The entire article operates under the premise that the U.K. bursts at the seams with NFL fans. In an effort to find out whether the NFL is a great sport or the greatest sport, Vrentas surveyed 50 people at NFL events about how much they like the NFL. In general, her article ignores the massive swath of the British population that either doesn't know the NFL exists or actively avoids it, which is an important consideration when spending a few thousand words on the viability of a London team. To justify that, Vrentas takes a page from her boss's manual and cites NFL-provided statistics with no skepticism whatsoever about just how much Brits love the NFL. As Vrentas wrote:

"Last season 13.8 million U.K. viewers watched NFL programming, an increase of 60 percent over the previous year, and the NFL also says more than 12 million people in the U.K. identify themselves as NFL fans."

There are 64.1 million people in the U.K., meaning, according to the NFL, 18.7 percent of Britons—nearly one in five—watched NFL programming last year. In case you're wondering if that's an accurate depiction of the NFL's numbers, I asked NFL U.K. Spokesman David Tossell for clarification, to which he replied, "13.8 million is the number of individuals who watched some NFL programming last season (three minutes to qualify). Some may have watched three minutes of one highlights show; some may have watched four complete live games every week of the season. Everyone gets counted once." So, yes, that is what the NFL is saying.

If the 18.7 percent figure is true, it's an astounding number when compared to some other sporting events. According to the Broadcast Audience Research Board (BARB), 27 percent of Britons watched the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina, 23 percent the England-Italy World Cup match and 37 percent of Americans watched last year's Super Bowl. Are we really to believe the NFL is only slightly less popular in the U.K. than the English National Team?

Tossell told me the TV viewership numbers come from BARB data, but the NFL hires an agency to do the analysis for them. When I asked to see the report containing that figure, Tossell refused, telling me it is "not a public document."

Since the NFL refused to give any supporting evidence for its data, I had to look elsewhere, and nothing I found supported the NFL's story. For example, a BARB spokesman told me the Super Bowl didn't make the top 30 programs for the week on its own station. Aired on Channel 4, it was beaten by the likes of four episodes each of Hollyoaks, The Simpsons (no word on whether they were pre-Season 10 episodes), and Coach Trip, which seems to be some kind of competitive tourism reality show.

Of course, the time difference is a huge issue. The Super Bowl begins at 11:30 PM in the U.K., while regular season primetime games don't begin until 1:20 AM, so ratings obviously aren't going to be great. (This problem isn't going away anytime soon; the Super Bowl will always be a primetime event in America, meaning it will always be a late-night affair in the U.K.)

Beyond that, there's further evidence the NFL is overstating its popularity in the U.K. With one out of five people identifying themselves as NFL fans, you'd think the British media would be covering the sport fairly extensively. But, a quick look at some major British news websites says otherwise.

On Friday, October 3, less than a week after the first of three NFL games in London, the domestic version of the BBC Sport landing page had zero NFL-related articles. The site has landing pages for individual sports: Football (the other one), Formula 1, Cricket, Rugby, Tennis, Golf, "Athletics" (track and field), and Cycling, but nothing for the NFL. The Guardian's sports page is the same story, with individual pages for Football, Cricket, F1, Rugby, Tennis, Golf, Cycling, Boxing, Athletics, Rugby League, and Racing (they do have a tab for "US" which is a link to their American sports site, containing NFL content). On the sidebar, there's an area for "Other Sports" which include Snooker, Chess, Darts, Disability Sport, Motor Sport, Sailing, Swimming, and two international competitions which have already taken place: the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Winter Olympics. There was, however, one NFL article on the Guardian Sport home page:

Even Sky Sports, which just signed a five-year broadcasting rights deal with the NFL for an undisclosed fee, has absolutely nothing NFL-related on its home page. If you engage the drop-down menu by sport, here is the list:

The decision to limit NFL International Series games to London—and previously Toronto—is even more curious when looking at audience sizes. According to Facebook-estimated audience size, the U.K. has an NFL audience of 3.4 million people, much lower than the NFL's estimates cited by the MMQB. When compared to other countries where the NFL isn't nearly as active, the league's efforts don't seem to have been particularly effective.

Mexico has an estimated audience of 5.4 million people. In Brazil, the Super Bowl was the most-watched cable program of the day, according to Sporting News. The league seems to have little inkling of the game's popularity in Brazil, with NFL International's Executive Vice President telling Sporting News a few weeks ago, "We've never looked specifically, but Brazil should be a huge opportunity for us." (The NFL has international offices in Canada, Japan, Mexico, the U.K., and China.)

It's probably no coincidence that the NFL is growing organically in time zones closer to the U.S.—the NFL is doing well in Canada, too—but rather than focus on those markets, the NFL is trying to jam its product into a country across an ocean despite a litany of practical concerns inherent in Earth's geography.

But the NFL has a new plan to use the time zone to its advantage. In a plot to annex Sundays, the NFL will play an "early game" at Wembley Stadium in London on October 26. It will air at 9:30 AM Eastern time, giving the NFL live football for 15 consecutive hours. Whether the Brits like it or not, they better open wide for some football.