There’s a narrow walkway between the Astronomy laboratory and the Physics building at Harrow School, a cobblestone path adorned with finely trimmed hedges and vibrant stained-glass windows. Boys scamper along in their navy uniforms, each holding his books and a thin tweed boater hat close to his chest — as if that alone could keep out the day’s chill.
It’s a scene straight out of a classic English film, weather included.
So what are Sam and Sophie Andrews doing here?
There’s a short and a long answer.
The short one is this: The Andrewses have driven almost three hours, some 130 miles from their home in Nottingham, England, because their favorite American football team, the Carolina Panthers, is at last practicing in the United Kingdom.
“We’ve been Panthers fans for as long as I can remember,” Sam told the Observer. “We just thought we’d try and drive down and chance it, see if we could meet anyone and get in (for practice).
“Obviously with it being a private school, we thought there’s no way anyone will let us through, and obviously they are really busy and stuff, but no one stopped us.”
Two days after Sam and Sophie crashed the final minutes of practice — and Sam scored Luke Kuechly’s autograph — the Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-26 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in front of a crowd 60,000-strong.
Sam and Sophie were there, of course. And their deepening ties to a sports team based on the other side of the Atlantic not only serve as a microcosm for the NFL’s expanding international presence but the Panthers’ effort to build a worldwide brand as well.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants the league to reach $25 billion in revenue by 2027, and while the NFL is expected to draw roughly $14 billion in 2019 according to the Wall Street Journal, only a small portion of that now comes from overseas. A larger worldwide audience means new revenue streams and the opportunity for the NFL to find more partners it otherwise wouldn’t.
Essentially, Europe is the NFL’s version of westward expansion, a vast new territory prime for the taking — and money making.
The market is so ripe that there have discussions about possibly moving an entire franchise to London, or even hosting a Super Bowl in England’s capital. And while the league at large wants to infiltrate foreign markets, individual teams also want their own share.
Which leads to a bigger question: How do the Panthers keep pace?
NFL history abroad
The NFL has been holding its International Series since 2005 in both Mexico and the United Kingdom, but the Panthers were one of the last three teams to play abroad, along with the Houston Texans and the Green Bay Packers.
English television first began broadcasting NFL highlight packages in the early 1980s, and actual games soon followed. But the NFL’s popularity abroad didn’t take its massive leap until 1986, when the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team played a preseason contest in London against Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys.
“We were like a bunch of rock stars. I’m being serious, it was crazy,” said coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker on that Bears team.
Paul McGoohan, a London native and Carolina’s vice president of business development, said the impact of that Bears’ visit was much more longstanding.
“There’s a generation — and I’m part of that generation — who (rallied) around the ‘85 Bears team, which is quite ironic given coach Rivera’s position,” McGoohan said.
By the time the Bears visited London — they ultimately beat Landry’s Cowboys 17-6 — English TV had started regularly showing the Sunday slate of NFL games. Given the time difference, that meant viewers in Britain had live American football as their Sunday night sporting event.
The British audience for NFL games has soared ever since, especially in the past two seasons. In 2017, streaming service OverTier acquired rights to operate NFL Game Pass in Europe, which covers 61 territories and countries. From 2017 to 2018, OverTier says it experienced a 75 percent increase in English viewership. Across all of Europe, 14.7 million hours of NFL content were viewed, including 6.5 million hours live.
“You had a generation who grew up, that was their live sport on a Sunday,” McGoohan said. “That generation is now at a time where they have disposal income, and they fell in love with the sport first, and then fell in love with the actual game experience.”
Picking a team
Now that the Panthers have forayed into the international scene, what can they do to separate themselves as a brand?
Playing a game in London — and winning — obviously helps. But that alone won’t grow the sort of multi-national fan base the team wants.
Enter Oli Harvey-Jones, co-founder of the Royal Riot, an English branch of worldwide Panthers fan club, The Roaring Riot.
Harvey-Jones had been an NFL fan for some time when he decided in 2015 that he wanted to cheer for a single team.
“Week 8 most seasons, I kind of lose interest a bit, because you don’t have the emotional investment. So one year I said, ‘Right, I’m gonna pick a team,’” Harvey-Jones said. “And keep in mind: It’s like Americans picking an EPL (soccer) team. You’ve got to find a reason. It’s not like you live there or anything like that. Whether you like the jerseys, some player, whatever.
“Week 1, watched RedZone for seven hours — nothing. Week 2, it was (the Panthers) against the Texans at home in 2015, and Cam (Newton) did his somersault touchdown, did his Superman, and then started dancing in front of the players ...
“That was it. From then on, that’s my team.”
Harvey-Jones followed the Panthers throughout their Super Bowl season, and the following year decided he wanted to attend a game in America with his fiancee. In the planning process, he found The Roaring Riot on Twitter and reached out to founder Zack Luttrell.
“If you know Zack, you know he’ll talk to everyone,” Harvey-Jones said. “I think he was quite interested in me because he was like, ‘This guy’s from the UK and he wants to come hang with us?’ So he went out of his way to make us feel welcomed.”
Harvey-Jones and Luttrell met up for Weeks 16 and 17 in 2016, and the pair stayed in touch. Then in 2018, for Carolina’s Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Luttrell flew to London.
“Zack came over and he was like, ‘Let’s try to put something together here,’” Harvey-Jones said. “Let’s try to get all the Roaring Riot members that we’ve got — not just across the UK, but across Europe, like Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Scotland.”
And the Royal Riot was born.
“Why is it important for me to help spread it overseas? I mean, that’s just the concept of our entire organization: to create communities of Panthers fans,” Luttrell said. “We’re not limited by any borders or anything; we want Panthers fans around the world.”
The David Tepper effect
The Royal Riot has gained about 60 members and 1,600 Twitter followers in a year’s time. The group gathers every Sunday to watch games at the Hippodrome Casino in London.
One of the obvious players they cheer for is defensive end Efe Obada, the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to make a 53-man roster. Obada grew up in London and has a swelling fan base throughout England.
“I’m aware that there’s a lot of people that are in my position and a lot of people that come from where I come from,” Obada said. “If by me chasing my dreams and being a part of this and working hard subconsciously motivates them to let them know that it’s possible, then that’s what I can do.”
Another major advantage Carolina has is team owner David Tepper, who has pursued a number of avenues to help his team gain brand width. For example, one of Tepper’s first moves as owner was hiring Tom Glick as team president.
Glick previously worked for City Football Group, specifically Manchester City Football Club in England, and his connections to one of the country’s iconic soccer teams have been invaluable both to the Panthers’ relationships abroad and to the organization’s efforts to lure a Major League Soccer franchise to Charlotte.
For example, Glick’s international connections helped the Panthers secure the first long-term contract ever with the International Champions Cup, an annual summer soccer tournament featuring Europe’s top clubs. Those games, which will take place in Charlotte for the next four summers, serve as a form of cross-branding for the Panthers with soccer-mad European audiences.
Glick was also key in getting the Panthers on Amazon’s “All or Nothing” series. His Manchester City squad was previously featured, the only time the show has followed an English Premier League team.
“Look at where we are as the Panthers and the organization under David Tepper,” McGoohan said. “As we grow, and we hopefully have more and more success here in (Bank of America Stadium) — because the way the NFL’s marketed around the world, people will see that success and they’ll learn about what we’re doing, what we’re doing down in Rock Hill and all the other things we plan to do over the next couple of years. And the brand will just develop naturally because of that.”
Tepper, the NFL’s richest individual owner, is also known for interacting with fans. During the England trip, he poured beers and led ‘Keep Pounding’ chants at the Royal Riot’s weekend party at the London pub, The Barrowboy and Banker.
“He ain’t a billionaire for no reason, right? Like he knows what he’s doing,” Harvey-Jones said. “He works the crowd, he got up on the microphone ... and he’s starting chants, getting everyone riled up. Let’s go Panthers, you know — and everyone’s losing their s***.”
The Patriot model
But for everything the Panthers do to gain favor with international fans, one thing still trumps all:
“Winning is a huge part of it. When you have success, it kind of filters down to everybody,” Rivera said. “Sometimes when you’re down, that (brand) part of it still has to bring fans in. That’s what Amazon Prime did for us. I think it also brought some people saying ‘Okay, I get it. They went through some real hard times, and their quarterback got hurt and they tried to fight through it.’
“As you look at what each side does for one another, it’s important. But winning, though, is the key.”
That explains why the New England Patriots, according to Harvey-Jones, are among the most popular NFL teams in Europe.
“It’s almost like (Super Bowl champion) rings make a difference,” he said. “But that’s an interesting point. We (the Panthers) win a ring, our fan base will grow. Because again, UK fans and European fans have to find a reason to support a team. And win, play well, you’ll get more fans.”
Inside The Barrowboy and Banker, pints of Peroni are a’flowin’.
It’s the day before the Panthers face the Bucs, and Carolina fans are out in full force. Blue banners are draped across the bar’s upstairs railings, and small black-and-blue Panthers pennants are hung throughout. An impromptu ‘Keep Pounding’ chant breaks out when the team cheerleaders and mascot, Sir Purr, come in the front door, drowning out the loud pop music on the speakers.
Upstairs, Harvey-Jones and Luttrell are chatting with members of The Royal Riot from all around Europe. There’s a group of Germans huddled in the corner, a few Austrians just beside them. Downstairs in the back corner, there’s a blown-up map of the world with pushpins for fans to say where they’re from. The North Carolina and London contingents are overwhelming, but there are others from California, Italy, France — even one or two from Africa.
Near the bar, the Sam and Sophie Andrews are finishing their beers. Of course they had to make a quick stop at the Panthers’ London pub, but they’re on their way shortly to buy new jerseys for the game: Sam wants a Brian Burns’ one, and Sophie wants Obada.
So what’s the end goal for the Panthers’ international market?
There might not be a clearly defined one for the team as a whole, not yet anyway. But Harvey-Jones certainly has one thing in mind. At the Hippodrome Casino, where The Royal Riot convenes every Sunday, there’s a massive wall of screens showing the full slate of NFL games.
The Panthers always are playing, but sometimes, it’s another game’s audio the group has to listen to. “You can hear the Chiefs blowing someone out or whatever,” Harvey-Jones said.
“What we want is the sound. We want it to feel like a Panthers bar. So whether we stay there or we have to move, what we want is our spot. Our place.”