Why more London games? NFL eyeing 400 million worldwide fans

The discussion surrounding the NFL's television ratings dip this season has spawned all kinds of theories. Among them: Has the league reached a plateau among its traditional fan base? After decades of growth, are there simply no more fans left to be captured?

Those questions have put the NFL's international expansion into new light. As the league announces its schedule for next season's London games, its goal is clear and public: Cultivate an international fan base that matches its stateside numbers.

Speaking by phone this week, NFL executive vice president for international Mark Waller laid out the framework of a strategic plan that has become a mantra within the league. He hopes to develop a following that makes the NFL at least a "top-five" sport in five different regions or countries: The United Kingdom, Canada, China, Mexico and Germany.

"If you can do that," he said, "and you measure the number of fans in those countries and add them up, that would give you a fan base that I would argue is the same as what we have in the United States."

At the moment, according to Waller, the NFL counts between 180-200 million stateside fans. He estimates the league is "about halfway there" internationally, bringing its rough worldwide estimate of fans between 270 million and 300 million. Based on those numbers, the NFL is pursuing an audience of some 360-400 million people worldwide -- a big number until you remember that 7.4 billion humans inhabit the planet.

New revenue is the obvious endgame, either as a net gain or simply to address a stagnant stateside market. At the moment, though, Waller's efforts are directed at building the structure and base for eventual monetization.

"To me, it's always been a very much fan-driven set of goals," he said. "If you build the fan base, everything else will flow out of that."

The 2017 season will mark a new step in the International Series with four games in London, up from three in each of the past three years. This season's games drew 242,373 fans -- including an NFL-record in London of 84,488 for a Week 8 game at Wembley Stadium -- but the league made its most notable progress in the local broadcast market.

The BBC airs two NFL-related programs during the season, one on Tuesday nights and one on Saturdays. The latter, according to Waller, has brought the youngest demographic of any show on the network and the second-most ethnically diverse.

"The data there is good," he said. "All the indicators that we have suggests that we've got good growth there and good momentum. We're finding that it's real and domestic. It's not U.S. fans going over there for games and it's not ex-patriots who are attending. It's very much a true U.K. audience."

The NFL is now halfway toward a full regular-season home schedule in London, and there has been discussion about whether a franchise or a "virtual franchise" is the most likely consummation of its work there. Waller said a franchise is the ideal goal for maximizing interest -- "The best expression of fandom is when you have your own team to root for," he said -- but it's not clear if NFL owners prefer that direction. A "virtual franchise" would bring eight regular-season games to London, but spread out among multiple existing stateside franchises.

As he works to prepare the market for a theoretical relocation, Waller compares the situation in London to the NFL's two-decade absence from Los Angeles.

"For 20 years, people talked about there not being an NFL team there, and there was always this speculation as to whether we would be there or not," he said. "Ultimately, it happened when two or three owners decided it was time to make it happen."

For now, the NFL will focus its efforts on staging recurring games in the five countries we noted earlier. The Week 11 game in Mexico City, a Monday night event between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans played in front of 76,473 fans, was "incredibly positive," Waller said. He would like to see a return to Canada; the last game there was in Toronto in 2013. Germany is home to arguably the highest level of domestic leagues outside of the Canadian Football League.

The NFL, meanwhile, has pushed back its timetable for staging a game in China because of travel and other logistical reasons. But Waller still thinks it can one day place a "one-off" game there to boost local interest.

"One of the things we need to show is that we can become a sustainable part of the sporting calendar in these countries," he said. "There was always a sense that we would come into a market, play a preseason game -- a friendly, so to speak -- and then come back a few years later. When you take real regular season games there, you show that you can be part of the sport calendar."

There was a time when that type of growth was considered a bonus for the NFL and its revenues. Does this year's ratings discussion add a level of urgency to the dynamic? Is international development now a matter of league sustenance? Given we've seen this season, it's fair to at least start asking those questions.