View From London: The NFL Marches Toward a Permanent UK Franchise
In 2007, Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemon stood under center for Miami in a downpour at Wembley Stadium, the mecca of English soccer. On the opposite side, Eli Manning completed just eight passes for the Giants, threw zero touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 44.9 in a win. The future of football in London looked bleak.
Ten years later the NFL has staged 22 regular season games in England’s capital and hosted 26 of the NFL’s 32 teams. According to the league office, 13 million people in the UK self-identify as being NFL fans (at various levels), and more than 3 million identify as being avid fans. Many of these fans consider it a national holiday for NFL fans when the schedule is announced for International Series games, usually in December.
While interest has grown exponentially over the past decade, dissenters remain. Supporters on these shores are known as ‘American football fans,’ and the players are sometimes referred to as ‘rugby players with helmets.’ The same questions about the logistics of playing and quality of play are being asked in the UK. NFL players have chimed in too.
“I hated it with a passion. I hated everything about it. I hated the flight. I hated the food,” Browns receiver Kenny Britt said about his 2016 voyage to London with the Rams.
It’s a popular pastime to blame the trip whenever a loss occurs, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh took it up a notch after his team got walloped by Jacksonville 44-7.
“To be honest with you, we don’t plan on going over there any time soon to play again. Somebody else can have that job.”
As the waves of support and noise ebb and flow, the International Series hit a new benchmark this season by expanding to four games in London, half of an NFL home schedule. They also scheduled the third game at 6 PM London time, making it the first to fall in the league’s 1PM ET slate. These moves all signal the NFL is closer to its goal of a permanent franchise in London as early as 2022.
Opposing basic British principle, let’s get straight to the point. The games this year were terrible. Jacksonville vs. Baltimore, Miami vs New Orleans, the LA Rams vs. Arizona, and Minnesota vs Cleveland combined for a score of 130-23. Two of those games were shutouts. Fans grew frustrated.
The most disappointing scene this season occurred with 13 minutes to play in the second quarter of the Browns-Vikings affair. Thousands of fans were outside the stadium, not even on the concourse but queueing for food and chatting on the steps. There was absolutely no rush to get back inside and it showed the downtrend following the first three games, which were ugly displays.
Before the game began, NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood was answering questions about 2018. Kirkwood is one of the smoothest talkers and honesty is his only policy, so what he says goes. He opined on the disappointment regarding the lack of competition during this year’s games and was already setting a big goal for next season: to bring over some of the final teams that haven’t been here yet; the Packers, Eagles, Titans, Texans, Seahawks and Panthers.
That’s a big time list.
While the fans grew weary in 2017 their loyalty to the sport has remained intact. Losing and bad football never fully puts off the fanbase here.
If you’re a sports fan in general, you don’t just suddenly stop loving it because you watch a bad game. No matter the quality of the game, local NFL fans immediately walk to the local pub to watch the 6pm games on television. It’s a ritual, a religion at this point. There has to be a stop to the fanbase question. As one fan put it to me, “this is our game too now.”
Over 40,000 season tickets were sold for all four games this season, while NFL research says 16% of sports fans in the UK now follow the league.
The NFL is no longer a novelty overseas, these are no longer tourist fans (for the most part). These are highly knowledgeable avids who watch NFL Gameday Morning in the afternoon, play fantasy at the office in midweek and can tell name their team’s third-string tackle. They disregard the elitist attitude emanating from the States regarding their national game because they’ve created a football culture here. Fans may be tired of the lousy product on the field, but they won’t stop coming. There’s simply an expectation overriding the gratitude of the game coming over here now; the UK fans want the best teams, the best quarterbacks and the best outcomes for them.
NFL Sundays in the UK are not a tribal atmosphere like soccer, instead a party vibe where fans of the game descend on the capital to rejoice with their fellow NFL brethren. Dan Nightingale, a New Orleans Saints fan who I followed for an MMQB video on being an NFL fan in London, said it’s always “more a celebration of the sport than a supporting of the teams.”
It’s fascinating to observe fans before games here. The ‘tailgate’ is not traditional in the sense that there aren’t any cars. A giant area is set aside at Wembley and a smaller one at Twickenham with merchandise stands, activities to kick and throw footballs, face painting and a viewing platform where you can have a photo with the Lombardi trophy. Giant chill dogs, Empire State Burgers and chips with curry sauce (try it, America) are the go-to foods.
“You know that everyone around you is a fan of the NFL, and that’s kind of a thrill,” Nightingale said in the film. That fandom expands well beyond the London locals.
One thing never surprising these days is the amount of German fans at the games. At this round of games I heard more German than English. A group of them had come from their local club back home and were chanting the team song in front of the line-out statue at Twickenham, while others were handing out wristbands to promote their German NFL Facebook fan pages.
At the fourth and final game between Cleveland and Minnesota, commissioner Roger Goodell was chatting to some executives on the sideline just a day before Ezekiel Elliott would be re-suspended the first time, but right now his focus was London. He’d already met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and as he was walking back inside, fans hollered for autographs. He obliged and a German fan said to him “please bring a game to Germany”.
Goodell gave an interesting response, not shying away from the subject. “Actually, we’re talking about it. Which city?” Bizarrely, he never got a response, but that would absolutely be a smart move for the league to continue to build out the surrounding fanbase. This is, after all, not exclusive to the UK. It’s a European project and the catchment area of fans includes Germany, Holland, Ireland, Scandinavia and more. That should not be underestimated when the dreaded ‘fanbase’ subject rears its head over the next four years leading up to Senior Vice President of NFL International, Mark Waller’s 2022 franchise target.
Most UK fans consider the Jacksonville Jaguars their second team. The team has been a mainstay given that it has played a London game in each of the past five seasons. The Union Jax fan club has grow to over 50,000 members. During this season’s Browns-Vikings game, the video screen at Twickenham showed a Red Zone clip of the Jags scoring a touchdown and the crowd cheered like it hadn’t since kickoff.
While shooting another film for The MMQB in September, I was tasked with tailing Jaguars owner Shad Khan, getting as close to the NFL experience as is humanly possible. Khan was in London for four days to do business, watch his Fulham team, do more business and then cheer on the Jaguars that Sunday. His yacht was the length of a football field, with five decks and a basketball court on top. The taps were made of gold, there were swimming pools and jacuzzis and in this wild space you noticed the growth of the NFL. Former Jags Fred Taylor and Tony Boselli had made the trip and they gushed over the city and the chance to come here annually. Khan said himself that he needs to show these guys and his partners how they roll, wise words from a man who tasked Jaguars President Mark Lamping with growing the Jags internationally from the outset.
Observing Khan in the suites at Craven Cottage and Wembley, he seemed especially joyous cheering of the NFL team. He was absolutely passionate about both, but during one particular Jaguars touchdown, he screamed ‘YES!’ five times and looked almost frighteningly passionate in doing so.
Many UK residents believe Jacksonville will be the permanent franchise in London even though Khan has invested heavily in the city of Jacksonville, including $20 million toward a $60 million renovation at EverBank Stadium.
A relocated team could turn some fans off.
The expansion idea is more comforting because it would feel like London’s very own team, with no prior history and a chance for NFL newbies to get into the sport and legitimize their support
A female Titans fan at Twickenham who loves it when the Jaguars lose said because of that she couldn’t support them as a permanent team. 75% of the women I spoke to said they think it will be an expansion franchise to come over, wary of the league’s attitude toward another city that ‘stole a franchise’.
Unlike Kenny Britt, Rams punter Johnny Hekker has embraced the London experience., Hekker sat down for ‘afternoon tea’ while here in 2016 and was a bundle of joy during the three-day stay this time around. He said he loved finger sandwiches and the accent and didn’t seem to care that his team had stayed in Jacksonville all week in order to make the trip to London easier.
This season’s set of four games saw teams arrive on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and there is no evidence to suggest one day is better than another in regard to performance. If anything, the prep early in the week and remaining on the east coast is most vital, further proof that if a team were established in London, their base would in fact be in the States.
“You definitely wouldn’t want to use the British summer as a training camp,” Nightingale said, and he’s right. Florida would make the most sense because of weather, tax reasons and enabling your family to remain in the States. The free agency process might also be easier if you’re telling players they’ll be in London for about 10 weeks per season, including games bunched two or three weeks at a time.
Half the soccer fans here don’t even know where their team’s training base is, so that aspect is irrelevant. NFL fans would still ingest news and follow the league the way they do now through apps and online coverage; by now they are used to the time difference.
Twickenham, which has now hosted three games, remains an outlier as an NFL home and is not logistically feasible as an option for a permanent team. The fan experience just isn’t the same as Wembley, and it lacks basic amenities. The local train station is small and large queues build up even 90 minutes after full-time, and in the game’s aftermath people who want to watch the next match aren’t surrounded by pubs like they are at Wembley.
A new stadium enters the fray next year – White Hart Lane – Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium in north London, which is required to host a minimum of two NFL games every year for the next ten. The Spurs have built NFL-specific locker rooms at the new ground and will have an NFL field living underneath the soccer pitch, which will be wheeled out for America’s game. That’s a very big commitment to a sport and yet another signal that the NFL will officially be an International game soon.