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For a league in the midst of a decades-long wooing process outside of the United States, there is a reality of foreign fandom that is a little awkward for the NFL.
The overseas market buys Tom Brady. A lot. And it buys the New England Patriots, too. More than any current NFL player and team, in fact. In the latest jersey sales from Europe, three Patriots land in the top seven sellers. The top slot belongs to Brady, with the fifth and seventh spots locked up by tight end Rob Gronkowski and wideout Julian Edelman.
So, yeah. There's that. After spending millions promoting the game and brand, and cementing an annual international series, the NFL went to war with the chosen team and player of its most prized foreign market. There are a lot of Patriots fans in London. Find one and ask that person about the NFL's federal court battle with Brady and you'll feel like you wandered into a Boston bar on game day.
"It has been a massive point of discussion," said James Cuff, a Patriots fan who lives in Cardiff, Wales. "I've refused buying things from the NFL because of it. I didn't renew my subscription to [NFL] Game Pass because I didn't want the money going into the NFL's pockets. I bought season tickets for all the Wembley games and I'm not going to any of them. I'll just watch how I can watch them, without giving any money to the NFL."
Cuff said he asked for a refund on his tickets but the NFL refused. So he's selling them and won't purchase any again until Brady's court case is resolved in the quarterback's favor. Cuff is biased, something he readily admits. He's been a moderator on UKpatriots.com, one of the largest foreign-based NFL fan forums. He has been a Patriots fan since 2006, thanks in part to a short trip to the U.S. that included a stop in Connecticut. Among other things, he helps organize an annual trip to a Patriots game in Foxborough, Mass., and hosts a Super Bowl party each year. But beyond that fandom, Cuff fits snugly in commissioner Roger Goodell's target demographic. He's a 35-year-old marketing specialist who really hadn't been exposed to the NFL product until the last decade. He came in young, with his best spending years in front of him. He is exactly the type of new blood the NFL has been seeking over the last 10 years.
To understand why that's important, you have to trace the history of the NFL's presence in continental Europe and the United Kingdom. And we're not talking World League of American Football turned NFL Europe, a failed fixture that never consistently showcased the NFL's best. That experiment is what most American fans identify with when it comes to the finer points of the NFL's overseas foray.
In truth, the NFL had a small but dedicated following in Europe far earlier, going back to the 1980s. That's when NFL games were carried to London and other locales on a one-week television delay, which wasn't so bad considering there was no Internet and few knew how games turned out a week earlier. There also wasn't a great deal to be seen in the region in broadcast sports at the time. The Premier League, England's juggernaut professional soccer league, wouldn't be founded until 1992. And that left a sizable void that was filled in part by NFL fans.
What resulted was an ardent Miami Dolphins fan base, because that was an elite team of the 1980s and Dan Marino was a star who caught the eye. Or the Chicago Bears, who still have a fan base that can recount William "Refrigerator" Perry's iconic touchdown in Super Bowl XX. These were the players who ushered in NFL popularity in 1980s London. They eventually faded as televised soccer and rugby crushed all interlopers.
"In the 1990s we kind of fell away," said Alistair Kirkwood, the NFL's managing director in the U.K. "We came in and became very fashionable, but then went out of fashion just as quickly."
Kirkwood should know. He was part of the cult, adopting an awful Buffalo Bills team in the mid-80s and eventually landing an NFL dream job years later. He's watched firsthand as the NFL rose and fell and has begun to rise again in the European market. And he got the job by writing the NFL what he later would call a "ballsy" letter while pursuing his university business degree.
"I said, 'I'm a fan across the sport. You haven't broken through internationally. Here are 10 things you're doing wrong. Give me three months and I'll solve two of them,'" Kirkwood recalled with a chuckle. "I got a phone call five days later. … When I looked back later, none of the 10 things were right."
That letter got Kirkwood his first look from the NFL, and eventually ushered in his current job, where he serves as the league's boots on the ground. Now he handles some part of almost every facet of the new expansion back into the region. Part of that job is knowing the fan base and how it functions. Nobody knows the rise of the Patriots or Brady better than he does.
And from Kirkwood's vantage, it started fairly conventionally.
"The irony there is that a lot of people have picked the Patriots because they don't know their U.S. history," he said with a laugh. "When they get into the sport, they go, 'Oh, it's got England in the name.' They didn't realize that it's actually not necessarily pro-English in the first place."
Patriots … American Revolution … Revolutionary War with England – you get the idea.
The facts of the nickname haven't diminished the love of the team. Of course, the last 15 or so years of elite play hasn't hurt, either. And from that perspective, that's why the NFL probably isn't all that worried about its annual London party having a little dirt kicked onto it by deflate-gate.
The NFL has a widening fan base in Europe. Some of it is the holdovers from the 1980s. Part of it is the strong Patriots contingent that has risen over the last decade. And much like the Premiere League's growth in the United States, part of it is young fans who have flocked to the sport by virtue of Internet and media access that has erased borders and shortened oceanic distances.
Maybe one of the biggest examples of that is the rise in Seattle Seahawks fans. In 2010, Kirkwood says it was an almost nonexistent segment. Now? Seattle is the only other team aside from New England with three players fielding top-selling jerseys (Marshawn Lynch at No. 3, Russell Wilson at No. 8 and Richard Sherman at No. 9).
This is why the NFL would never worry about deflate-gate's impact on its biggest foreign fan base. The league is more focused on promoting games, not players. And the players change. By selling the game, the league is trying to sell something more enduring.
"I think for the most part it starts off with team loyalty rather than players," Kirkwood said. "The Patriots are the most popular team in the U.K. – they have the biggest fan base. That's why I think Tom Brady's jersey is the biggest seller."
That's not to say Brady doesn't check off some of the important boxes that have made him the most marketable NFL player abroad. Some want to invoke the name of David Beckham when they compare his reach into the U.S. to that of Brady's into the league's overseas market.
"He crosses some of the territories," Cuff said. "He's a good-looking chap. He's got a famous wife. He's into marketing in other places like fashion and those sort of things."
But Cuff stops there. He points out that Brady doesn't seek to be a brand the same way Beckham did. There is no reality TV show. He isn't moving abroad to try and expand his star power.
"To be honest, I think the majority of people would know him as Gisele's husband, not Tom Brady, the massive football player," Cuff said.
But that's good enough for Patriots fans abroad, who may love their team for a variety of reasons, but love their quarterback for many of the same: the overlooked pick in the draft who reached greatness and has lived a fairy tale, deflate-gate aside.
"He's like a Hollywood story for what the NFL is all about," Cuff said.
Well, as long as the NFL isn't getting in the way. Just take a dive into a U.K. fan forum. They'll tell you all about it.
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