LONDON — Chris Parsons’s passion for football — American football, that is — began when he was 10 years old, watching a weekly NFL highlights show.
Parsons loved it, his friends in Manchester loved it, and it wasn’t long before the boy found himself searching for the Armed Forces radio signal so he could hear the broadcasts of games.
Now, Parsons is at the forefront of bringing the NFL not just to his native United Kingdom but to the rest of the world, as head of the league’s International Unit.
With the city of London and Wembley Stadium ready to host the International Series game Sunday between the Rams and Patriots, the NFL never has been more popular in the UK.
Which is just what the league wanted.
“I think it’s good because you think about the 180 million people that watched our Super Bowl against the Giants live, which is almost two-thirds of America, so we’ve pretty much tapped out the American [market],” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. “For our game to continue to grow and be special we have to expand our fan base, and I think from our cultural and language point of view, going to England and playing there and developing the game [made sense].
“We have such a following in the UK and people really grab on to the game. It’s wonderful to see another country embrace our sport, and by bringing the real game there I think they have really loved it.”
The Super Bowl annually ranks as the most-watched television event in the United States, and the NFL receives billions of dollars from American companies who want to be part of the game.
But Kraft and commissioner Roger Goodell believe the game can grow even more. The NFL had played preseason games in Mexico City, Tokyo, Berlin, Montreal, Dublin, and Sydney from 1986 to 2005.
For the 2007 season, the decision was made to take a regular-season game overseas for the first time (the Bills began playing one “home” game per year in Toronto a year later), with the Giants beating the Dolphins.
The game has returned every year since, always played in late October.
Alistair Kirkwood, head of the NFL’s UK office, said the television audience for NFL games has grown threefold since 2007, and now ranks as the country’s seventh most-watched sport.
On Sundays, the NFL often will go against Spanish La Liga soccer games, arguably the strongest league in the sport, and draw similar ratings. During the regular season, fans have access to every game. And despite the Super Bowl coming on well past midnight in England, more than four million fans here watch the game live.
“We have a very strong, hard-core fan base,” said Kirkwood, a long-suffering Bills fan. “We’ve grown substantially with a younger fan base in the last three or four years since we’ve been playing these games, but we still have some way to go because we’re not an indigenous sport, we’re not a sport that is played in schools.
“So, the very fact that we will have a sold-out game again this Sunday, and that it’s an incredibly popular ticket, indicates that the sport has a really good base to build on, and the fact that we’re moving to two games a year next year shows that we believe that not only do we have a lot of demand but we can grow.”
The NFL already has announced that there will be two games played at Wembley in 2013 — the Vikings will “host” the Steelers in September, and the Jaguars will host the 49ers in October.
Jacksonville, which long has struggled to fill its stadium and recently was purchased by Pakistani-born Shad Khan, who built his fortune in the United States, has agreed to play one home game per year for four years at Wembley.
Adding a second London game long has been in the NFL’s plans.
“I think when you look at our strategy over here we’ve come through the first phase very well. The first phase was to bring games over here every year for five or six years and really show how bringing those games would really accelerate the growth of our business,” Parsons said. “We’ve demonstrated that. For the next phase, we have a team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, signed up to be a returning home team.
“We believe that gives us another opportunity to engage newer fans who will be able to see a team year in and year out and support the Jaguars, and the Jaguars will work with us very closely to build a fan base over here. I think that’s sort of Phase One of the next round of strategic development.
“And the next piece was always to get a second game, which is incredibly important for us because the notion that we could be a true UK sport but only play one game a season is a bit challenging. We want to become a much deeper part of the fabric of the sports calendar here and so playing that second game, especially four weeks earlier and four weeks into the season, gives us a real boost in terms of making this much more of a nationally embraced sport in the UK. We’ll be working very hard to make sure that second game is successful and that the two games work better than the one, and we’re confident that we can do that.”
Part of American football taking hold long term in the UK is likely seeing it played in the university system here and perhaps at the youth level.
The league is trying to foster grassroots growth. Parsons said it is working with the British American Football Association, which is the governing body for the sport in the UK. The BAFA is part of the European Federation of American Football.
While there has been talk of an NFL franchise based in London — Kraft is a major proponent of that idea because of how it could grow the sport and the league — Kirkwood and Parsons said that is a long way off.
“We would probably need to triple our fan base from where we are,” Kirkwood said. “But next year we will go to the equivalent of a quarter of a regular-season [home] schedule. So although two games doesn’t sound a lot, that’s us coming a really long way from where we were starting 2007.”
“My real focus and my objectives are really about building the fan base,” Parsons said. “We don’t control how teams would choose to locate and it’s not really part of our thoughts, but if we can double the size of our fan base again over the next five years, then we would be establishing conditions where in the future it could be a possibility, but we certainly don’t purport to have that as our primary goal because the primary goal is building the base year after year.”
While the Jaguars are hoping to build a following in the UK by signing the long-term deal to play at Wembley, for now the Patriots remain the most popular team in this country, and Kraft, Kirkwood, and Parsons all point to two main reasons: This is old England and the Patriots play in New England, and the Patriots’ success over the last decade.