In 2015, the NFL’s International Series served up the most prestigious set of games it has offered to date including, the return of the nation’s adopted Jaguars team taking on the hotly tipped Buffalo Bills, the clash of top playmakers as the Chiefs hosted the Lions, and for the first time, a divisional game matching the Dolphins against the Jets. Injuries to the likes of Tyrod Taylor and Jamaal Charles altered these narratives somewhat, but that didn’t affect the success of a high-scoring, high octane series, including an all-time memorable victory from the Jaguars in a nail-biter – a game which may truly have been their homecoming.
The International Series has come in to its own in recent years, moving from a cautiously played curiosity to a game with the feel of a legitimate prime time game. London has now supported 14 games over seven years with near unmitigated success from the points of view both of the NFL and its expansion in the UK. While teams and fan-bases were certainly initially wary of taking part in the experimental series, it has now been running long enough that there is something of a peer-agreed approach to competing in the games. Fans will certainly still resent losing a traditional home game for the season, but for the fan base generally, the move to schedule the games for the early afternoon (or early morning in the US) provides them with an extra standalone game to watch live on the weeks of the International Series. Add to the mix the NFL’s experiment with streaming the game through Yahoo this year, a stream which drew 33 million viewers, extending the benefit to viewers around the world.
For British fans like me, the games continue to be a wonderful opportunity to watch meaningful NFL games on our doorstep, with every team being strongly represented among the fan-base. For a fan like me, not only the tube, but the train from Glasgow to London being filled with passengers sporting every NFL jersey in the rainbow is heart-warming, and while I’m sure the sport would have grown in the UK, there is no doubt that the International Series has helped to catalyse the growth of an increasingly visible and vocal NFL fan community. The momentum is definite, and an increasing engagement outside of the States seems inevitable from the NFL, especially given the new agreement with the Jaguars to play at least one game a season in London until 2020 and rumours that the International Series will extend to Mexico in coming years. The exact future of the NFL in the UK, though, is bright and mysterious.
Is a London Franchise Feasible
The most common chatter is about the possibility of London hosting a permanent team in the league, either replacing the International Series, or allowing it to expand to different countries. It is a common topic of discussion among British fans, something I was asked about by several American fans I spoke with at the recent Chiefs-Lions game, and is spoken about as if it is an inevitably. The questions surrounding the prospect though are serious and commonly occurring:
- Can London sell tickets for 8 games a year with the current fan base?
- Will fans migrate to the London team?
- Will the time/geographical distance be an issue for scheduling?
With the first question, I think the answer is ultimately yes, under certain circumstances. While I think a prospective team would struggle to sell out Wembley with British fans eight times a year, there are factors that could mitigate these struggles. The most important change might be to change the stadium used by the team. The attendance at the Lions-Chiefs game was over 83, 000, an amount of seats that only the top Premier League teams would be able to fill frequently without issue. I think it would really benefit the team to use a stadium with a capacity of more like 50-60,000, and ultimately, I think the team would need to build its own stadium as existing football stadiums lack the character of an American Football stadium, which Wembley actually has). The identity of this team will be important, and a new stadium would be integral to this, as well having a more manageable capacity. It is important also to remember that the London team would represent a lot more than just London, and even more than Britain. The UK isn’t the only country where interest in American football is growing. At all of my experiences at the International Series, the fans have been a patchwork of a British, European, and international crowd, and especially Germany, where there had in fact been talk of hosting a game in the early days of the International project. The London team would draw regular fans from Britain certainly, and a fair number from Europe, away fans from the United States, and beyond.
With a smaller, purpose-built stadium, and the visible reaching out to a fan-base outside of Britain, a team in London could sustain a fan-base for its home games, at least; though the advantage of home teams in the US would be magnified greatly as much fewer fans would make the trip state-side to support their team.
The second question surrounds whether or not a fan-base would migrate to a London team; more specifically, whether fans would abandon their pre-existing team in favour of a London team. Unfortunately, I believe the short answer to that is no, for the majority. This is certainly the case for me, but also for every serious NFL fan I have spoken to or heard from in any way on the subject. British fans have very strong, emotional links to their teams based on nostalgia, habit, and loyalty. The most prominent candidate to move to London is the Jacksonville Jaguars, and presumably Jaguar fans would support the London team without much trouble, but apart from that, the fan-base would be based on targeting what neutral fans there are and future young fans. There is definite room for growth in a fan-base, but the reality is that initially, those who visit the games in the franchise’s early years will largely not be fans of the team (though they may root for them as a second team). The success of creating a successful franchise will largely be based on the success of fashioning a genuine, loyal fan-base as well as making the team a strong second-favourite for other fans.
Finally, the most technical problem: the scheduling. The first response to this is highlighting the truth that the distance between the West Coast and the East Coast is roughly only a little smaller than the distance between the East Coast and Britain. What that doesn’t take in to account though is the massive geographical and time differences between the West Coast of America and Britain, some eight hours. With this unchangeable problem in place, a normal NFL schedule would be impossible to utilise normally. A normal NFL schedule sees teams alternate home and away games on a regular basis, meaning that the London Team would be in a constant state of travel across large times and distances; of course this is the case for all teams, but for the London Team, they would always be travelling very large distances, sometimes longer than any other team, putting them at a definite disadvantage. So perhaps then the NFL could schedule more home games in a row than usual, and more away games in a row than usual (for example, 4 home games in a row, followed by 3 away games in a row). Again though, that causes issues of fairness as they would be playing under different circumstances than the other teams. For instance, if the team were on a run to the playoffs and had several consecutive home games, their competitors would rightly feel aggrieved at their advantage, and the opposite being true in the reverse scenario. If a suitable scheduling solution can be found, then the final significant issue surrounding a prospective London team is removed.
The Future of the International Series
Before anything is made official regarding a London franchise, it is interesting to see how the International Series progresses. We know the Jaguars will be strengthening their grip on the British and European fans with a guaranteed game at Wembley every year until at least 2020, but aside from that, not much is known. I would be surprised if the rumours about a Mexican game are unfounded, and there are certainly plenty of places that could host future games including Canada and Germany. The future therefore depends on whether there will be any upper limit of the acceptable amount of games to be played outside of the US.
If there is, the International Series may consist of three or four games each year, but split between, for example, London, Mexico City, Berlin, and Toronto. The problem with that though is that if a London franchise is in the NFL’s plans, having fewer games than now seems like a backwards step. So maybe there would be three London games and one in another country, alternating each year. Alternatively of course, there may not be an upper limit on the amount of games, instead having more like five or six games outside of the United States each year, with three being held in London. The more games outside of the US, however, the harder it is to so without affecting the schedule.
My feeling is that the only logical next progression for the series is to continue with three games in London each year with a fourth game being alternated to arenas around the world. That is a sustainable growth which would add a bit of variety to an already exotic prime time style game. Aside from that, having more divisional games abroad and perhaps mandating that the reigning Superbowl champions play abroad each year would be a way to evolve the International Series.
Problematic as the International Series can be, the growing pains that accompany its evolution carry with them a huge degree of potential innovation and expansion that, if fulfilled, will add some wonderful variety and intrigue to the game for international audiences.