NFL's Mark Waller is its Mr. International
Sep. 26, 2014
Mark Waller has a passion for football. Tottenham Hotspur is his team.
As for that other kind of football, he's trying to work up a similar fervor for the American game around the world as the NFL's executive vice president of international.
Waller is back in his native England this week for the first of three league games at Wembley Stadium, Miami against Oakland. If he sneaks off to see Spurs take on Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday, it's understandable.
"I do fundamentally believe the deep-rooted divisive passion of U.K. soccer is unlike almost any other sports passion I've seen," Waller says. "It's a very different passion in the U.K.; passion for soccer is actually passion for a team. I love Tottenham and I hate Arsenal.
"That's not really nearly as much the case in the U.S. Sport generally in the U.S. is unified. It's a binding power. It's different, for me, the passion I feel is very different (from soccer)."
Waller, who recently returned to his role as director of the league's international interests, came to the United States in 1996 with less than a working knowledge of the NFL game. He knew almost immediately he needed to master American football to have something to discuss with his co-workers.
"I think the hardest thing is if you've never played it, you have no concept of the level of specialty and expertise required to play it," Waller says. "Again, if you look at soccer, there's only one specialist role and that's the goalkeeper. The others are variations on a theme, but most people could play reasonably well in most positions. A slight overstatement, but generally true.
"In football if you took one of those quarterbacks and asked them to play wide receiver, it would be a train wreck."
Waller also was fascinated early on — and still is — by the way American football is relatively scripted.
"Plays are written, right? So there's a playbook," he says. "If you're educated in the game you know what to look for. So the running play sets up the pass. If you don't know the game you have no idea what to look for. So actually the biggest issue for me the first year was I did not know where to look for the ball."
He must have learned well enough, because a decade later, he was working for the NFL.
By 2009, Waller was chief marketing officer. And now, as the NFL adds to its plate internationally, Waller is its overseer.
This weekend's match — Dolphins-Raiders, not Spurs-Gunners — will be followed by Lions-Falcons on Oct. 26. That one has a morning kickoff in the United States for the first time.
On Nov. 9, Jacksonville plays the second game of its four-year commitment to the United Kingdom against Dallas.
Waller emphasizes that the appetite for the NFL in England, specifically for games at Wembley, is growing, as evidenced by ticket sales and media requests.
"I think the fact that we have demand to sell out three games is just fantastic," Waller says. "So I'd start with, if the challenges are around the execution of that, then that's a great set of challenges to have. I'd be worried if it was the other way around and we were going backwards."
The NFL image has taken steps back recently after domestic violence cases several players. Waller has seen enhanced media coverage of the issues in England.
"In the last days or so it has become more about the league and how we've handled it and what are we going to do about it. So we are definitely seeing the impact," he said.
No sponsors or officials in London have been expressing concern about staging the games there, however.
While Waller is watching intently on Sunday — hoping his Spurs have satisfied his soccer zeal the previous day — he recognizes it's just the beginning of a six-week American football journey. And perhaps it will lead to a longer one in the U.K. in subsequent years.
"But what we're really trying to accomplish is build the popularity and the fan base of the sport on an ongoing basis," he says. "And so the approach that we've taken is a focus on 'Let's build out this, let's see how many people love the game, see how much love they have.'
"So we've been very deliberate in not going to other markets to focus the resource against proving out how much can we grow the game in the U.K."
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