The 2015 NFL International Series and the Game’s Future in the UK

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.

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NFL Draft 2014: Why Johnny Football Will Stay in Texas and the Jaguars Will Make the Biggest Splash

Johnny 'Football' Manziel making his signature 'Money' gesture, credit: http://msn.foxsports.com/collegefootball/story/johnny-manziel-celebrates-by-making-money-autograph-gestures-083113

Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel making his signature ‘Money’ gesture, credit: http://msn.foxsports.com/collegefootball/story/johnny-manziel-celebrates-by-making-money-autograph-gestures-083113

The NFL Draft is always a hot-bed of intrigue and speculation, from General Managers leaking false reports to outwit their competitors, to mock draft upon mock draft upon mock draft – all with different angles and opinions about what will happen when Commissioner Goodell takes the podium at Music City Radio Hall. The one thing that it seems everyone is agreed on is that the later date of the Draft this year is making everyone increasingly frustrated for the event to come, lost in repeated conversations and ‘big questions’ that have now been exhausted. Maybe it is that frustration that has led to me writing this article – needing to pass some time before the Draft next week. The last NFL post I wrote was about how Seattle would crush Denver in the Superbowl, so I advise that you heed my savant-like words about this draft.

Another reason I decided to write this post is that I have a projection for the draft which seems to go against a strong consensus of both fans and ‘draft experts’. On most boards, South Carolina potential once-in-a-generation Defensive End Jadaveon Clowney is going to be picked first overall; a projection which seems to make a lot of sense if you buy Clowney as the All-Pro he is projected as. Further, the argument goes that the team in possession of the #1 pick – The Houston Texans – will take Clowney to add to a Defensive line that also includes former Pro-bowler and NFL Defensive Player of the Year, JJ. Watt to complete a fearsome pass-rush that would undisputedly be the best in the league (and potentially, ever). If they were to do that, teams would certainly struggle to score on them and the Texans would be taking balls away left, right, and centre; and often-times, a great defense can lead to a championship team.

Jadaveon Clowney, the once-in-a-lifetime prospect and #1 prospect in this year's draft. Credit: http://college-football.si.com/2013/07/23/report-south-carolina-investigating-jadeveon-clowney-jay-z-contact/

Jadaveon Clowney, the once-in-a-lifetime prospect and #1 prospect in this year’s draft. Credit: http://college-football.si.com/2013/07/23/report-south-carolina-investigating-jadeveon-clowney-jay-z-contact/

This post wont be arguing that that’s a stupid approach because it isn’t, and if the Texans take Clowney I will neither be surprised or dismissive, but all that being said, I will argue that the Texans as a team will benefit more by going in a different direction in their draft. This is based on a simple premise: the current starting QB for the Houston Texans is Ryan Fitzpatrick, and that isn’t good enough. Fitzpatrick is an ok player, a journeyman veteran, but there is no reason to think he can run a dynamic, successful offense – he never has before, has just joined the Texans, and seems more like a back up or safety net than a feasible starter. The Defense may not concede many points, but the Offense wont be scoring many points either – there will be a lot of low-scoring games involving Houston this year if they take Clowney. That’s a risky strategy when they face teams with good Offensive lines and quarterbacks who can release the ball quickly and successfully as a response to pass rush.

Meanwhile, this year’s Quarterbacks class is a deep one with some special talent, and none more special – in every way – than Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. Compared to other Quarterbacks in this class, Manziel seems much less like a development prospect and the most pro-ready prospect – an exciting mobile quarterback who can inject some dynamism and creativity in to an offense held down in the past by Matt Shaub’s limitations. Future Quarterback classes may come and go, but no-one knows what the standard of talent will be; but what is clear is that the Texans need a franchise quarterback, and won’t be a serious competitor until they get one, so it isn’t time to wait on the most important position on the team.

Add to the equation that the Texans do have a great and already successful blind-side rusher in JJ Watt and a good D-line already, the addition of Clowney may be an exceptional addition to an already relative-strong spot, but I argue that it is plainly better to fill a huge team need while keeping a good D-line that the team already has, and if the Texans really feel a need to add to their Defensive line, they can always trade for or sign more defensive linemen in due course and a lot more easily than it is to find a successful franchise quarterback. There are also the extra intangibles of taking Manziel, especially for a Texas expansion team. Any team Manziel goes to will instantly have a much higher profile, huge fan interest, shirt sales, TV time etc that helps build a successful franchise; and in Houston’s case, taking the darling of Texas will only increase that effect. That extra element makes Manziel a once-in-a-lifetime pick for the Texans specifically, and someone they must be looking at much closer than onlookers seem to be crediting.

While it seems to me that some quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr might fall to the second round. Manziel and some others who are in the highest echelon of QB talent, however, will almost certainly not fall out the first round, if not the top 10 picks, and if the Texans trade down and there is a run of Quarterbacks, they could miss out altogether. So though – objectively – Clowney is the #1 talent in this year’s draft, I predict that one of the many shock’s of this year’s draft will be the very first pick, Johnny Manziel to the Houston Texans.

So if Manziel does indeed go to the Texans, where will Clowney go? Well that brings me to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

A lot of people would never anticipate Clowney dropping from #1, so they would anticipate him dropping to #3 even less, but it is nonetheless what I see happening. Once again, I would not be shocked if the St. Louis Rams take Clowney at #2, but they are a team with a much bigger need at Wide Receiver than at Defensive Line due to lack of depth as well as due to a need to give their Quarterback – be it Bradford or a new quarterback with their second first round pick at #13. There are two receivers with game-changing talent in the draft: Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, but neither will be there at #13, so the Rams will want to take one at #2, and Sammy Watkins is certainly deserving of a #2 pick; so that’s why I see the Rams taking Watkins at #2 and therefore, Clowney dropping again.

Clowney is another player who – though to a lesser extent than Manziel – has a franchise, attention-grabbing feel to him, and Jacksonville don’t just have a need at Defensive Line, but they have a need in terms of interest and energy in the franchise. Clowney fits both, the Jaguars will be delighted to see him still on the board, and will announce that pick within seconds of them being on the clock.

Teddy Brdgewater, the Louisville QB who has slid dramatically down most draft boards. Credit: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1804680-teddy-bridgewater-compares-himself-to-peyton-manning-is-he-crazy

Teddy Brdgewater, the Louisville QB who has slid dramatically down most draft boards. Credit: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1804680-teddy-bridgewater-compares-himself-to-peyton-manning-is-he-crazy

But it won’t stop there for the Jaguars. I hinted before at the likelihood that some very talented Quarterbacks could fall to the second round – most infamously, Teddy Bridgewater, who was projected just a month or two ago as a potential top of the first round talent, but has fallen steeply following a disappointing pro day. A disappointing pro day is hard to explain as it should be a gimme performance for a top Quarterback, but it is not the same as his impressive outings for Louisville. Depending on what St. Louis do with their second pick in the first round, I see Bridgewater still being on the board when Jacksonville come to pick in Round 2. I added the Rams caveat there as there has been speculation that they could take a quarterback at some point in their first round picks, but I don’t buy that; I think they still believe in Bradford and were just a bit too keenly supportive of him recently to make it seem insincere or trickery. Call it intuition if you like.

So, by means of an advantageous turn of events, the Jaguars could end up with both Jadaveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater: two players who were at different times projected as top-five prospects, and one of whom is almost certainly the top talent in the draft. If the picks do indeed go that way, it could be a brand new start for a Jacksonville team banished to 3 years of London games due to the franchise’s mediocrity. They are in a division with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, who will provide some pretty stiff completion, but those moves could make the Jaguars competitive, or certainly more competitive in that division. The main thing is that the team would be suddenly one of the freshest and most exciting attractions in the league, starting right off from making the biggest splash in the 2014 Draft.

Of course, if and when teams start trading picks, it could affect the delicate eco-system I have imagined here, but that’s all part of the fun of the draft, and it really can’t come fast enough …