Sunday’s match-up at Wembley placed the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Minnesota Vikings, and talk of the possibilities for the NFL in this country are endless.
The growth of American Football in the United Kingdom has been extraordinary ever since the first International Series game took place at the national stadium back in 2007.
In fact there was a significant fan base prior to the first regular season game outside of North America six years ago. Exhibition games took place at the ‘old’ Wembley from 1986 to the early 1990s, and Channel 4 was showing games during the 1980s as well.
However, it has gone from strength to strength. Saturday’s NFL Block Party in Regent Street attracted half a million visitors who were treated to performances from the Vikings cheerleaders and appearances of the coaches and players from the respective teams, all the while tucking into some traditional American food.
The first of two International Series matches on Sunday will play host to a full house in which every NFL team’s jersey will be represented.
This is not just about the two teams taking part. It is a celebration of American Football on this side of the pond.
Next month the San Francisco 49ers who lost last season’s Super Bowl will play the Jacksonville Jaguars, marking a second game in the same season to be held in this country for the first time.
The Jaguars themselves will come over annually for one game over the next four years through 2016 which firmly signals the intent of league bosses. This could be happening.
Unsurprisingly, the demand and interest in the NFL is sky high and has led some to ask the question about the viability of a franchise in the future.
A few years ago this seemed a long shot but commissioner Roger Goodell has his sights firmly fixed on this side of the Atlantic, leaving many to believe that we will see a team playing home games at Wembley sooner rather than later.
Talks are reportedly already ongoing regarding the possibility of increasing the number of games next year to 3, particularly as tickets for these two games sold out exceptionally fast, inside two weeks of being released in fact. League executives have gone from seeing the possibility of a British franchise as an “if” to a “when” something that could happen within the next decade.
Logistically there are problems. The most obvious of those is the distance that teams of travelling on the road, not to mention the adjustment in time difference they would have to go through. Moreover, would players of the existing franchise (most likely the Jaguars of possibly Rams due to Stan Kroenke’s connection to Arsenal) be willing to relocate to another country, and leave behind their way of life?
Then you have the time difference. Would the NFL give London games prime time billing? Would they feature on the flagship slots such as Thursday Night Football or the late Sunday game (8pm ET in the US)? I am not so sure.
I am a huge advocate for American Football in this country. However the vast majority of UK or European (yes there are a lot of German fans in particular) supporters follow an existing team in the NFL. Would they be willing to lend support to this new team?
Opponents to relocation to London talk of these issues above. It has one thing going for it though. The overseas market is largely untapped and it is not hard to see why NFL executives have become so transfixed on its numerous possibilities, not just from a marketing standpoint.
Yet, relocating a team leaves an existing fan base in the cold. It happened when the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis. It happened when Art Modell took the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore to form today’s Ravens.
London makes more sense than Jacksonville. It is a hive of activity, its big for business and its recognisable. A franchise is the next phase of international growth for the game. Goodell has made it clear they are looking into this possibility.
Perhaps we might see an NFL franchise return to Los Angeles before one moves to London, but it can hardly be dismissed anymore. Expansion of the league from 32 teams may also happen.
In the long term, is a franchise sustainable? This is why they are keen to see if the support is there for 3, 4 possibly 5 or more games in the future. This is not a decision they are going to make overnight.
My biggest criticism of a possible franchise in this country is that realistically American Football is never going to be more popular than Football is it? Even Cricket, Tennis, Golf and Rugby are well supported. American Football ranks around 6th or 7th on this list in terms of popularity.
Additionally, the spectacle of the International Series in October (or in this case September!) of every year is a major event on the league calendar. It is something that every British NFL fan looks forward to. The event itself is phenomenal and many have likened it as having a mini Super Bowl feel to it. It is like nothing I have ever experienced before.
In many ways this uniqueness could be lost if we suddenly had a permanent team on these shores.
Steelers Safety Ryan Clark echoed a real issue this week by stating he would retire before playing for a London NFL team. Do not get me wrong, this was said a little tongue in cheek, and you only have to listen to some of the interviews with players and coaches who are amazed by the welcome and support they have during their time in the UK. Bengals Tackle Andrew Whitworth and Vikings Defensive End Jared Allen – one of the stars on show on Sunday – have both dismissed the idea as well.
Its a growing list in truth.
There are problems with the idea of a team over here. There really are. Many critics have argued the NFL should export to Canada before it considers Britain.
Then you have the stumbling block in which 24 of the 32 owners would have to agree to the move before it could happen. The NFL wants this, that is clear. It might not be allowed to happen though, despite support last year from Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft.
I believe we will at the very least see more games in the future, games that will not necessarily be played at Wembley Stadium. That is a real positive for a fan base which continues to grow in the UK, particularly from a participation level where there are now over 6,500 members of the British American Football Association, and a 50% increase for University teams.
This support must first prove itself before eight games a season and a franchise are evenly remotely possible. The strength of the support has not been questioned, but the desire for a franchise has. You only have to visit the NFL UK forum to know there are some fans who openly are against the idea.
Wembley hosting a Super Bowl in the future has been touted as a possibility too. There was also a major step forward in that the International Series will be broadcast on freeview (Channel 4) for the first time ever this year, one again highlighting the increasing demand for gridiron action over here.
On one hand an UK franchise would be a brilliant thing. On the other, will it ever grow to dominate popularity in this country to rival traditional Football?
Gone are the days when people laughed at the possibility of a team permanently basing itself outside of America. The NFL is committed to the UK and it is showing that with the inevitable announcement of more games next year, and the year after and so on.
Ultimately this decision is in the hands of the NFL and the league’s commissioner Goodell. Franchise or no franchise, the International Series continues to serve as a reminder that the NFL may be here to stay for longer than most could have imagined. Whether we have a team to accompany this is anyone’s guess, but this is a decision they are not taking likely.
These are genuine discussions, and issues aside, the UK and Europe continue to give the league food for thought.
London Jaguars? It does have a ring to it!
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