NFL London: UK Has an American Football Destiny

It’s the worst kept secret in the sports world. You can mark it down right now. There will be a full-time NFL team in London in a handful of years.

After visiting last weekend’s third and final UK game for the 2014 season, it’s obvious that there’s too much media buzz, too much curiosity amongst the locals, too many potential dollar (or £) signs for NFL executives and, most importantly, too many eager potential UK marketing tie-ins for that NFL London based franchise not to happen.

UK’s Football Party

Hosted at massive Wembley Stadium, this Week 10 contest between the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars was a non-story outside of Texas. With the technically visiting Cowboys blowing the hapless Jags in the first half, it was just another loss for a struggling Florida franchise that the Roger Goodell and his legions would love to see playing eight games in the UK every year.

The Wembley games boast a more collective atmosphere than any other NFL venue. For example, if the Cowboys beat up on the Jaguars at their massive home stadium, most in attendance would be well-heeled Texans. if you attend a Packer game, you’ll see a sea of green and gold (or camouflage and blaze orange in winter), with 90% of frozen faces screaming the ole’ “Go, Pack go!”

At Wembley, all teams are celebrated. I spotted jerseys for every NFL team – and even occasional NCAA colors. Some British fans seem to mix and match via color coordination – blending the orange of a Bengals cap with the rusty red of a 49ers shirt. While there were Dallas and Jacksonville supporters in attendance, the majority of the crowd were American expats eager to see their home country’s favorite sport live blended with Brits intrigued by a sport richer than rugby and rougher than soccer.

When you put that all together, you get a Wembley stadium packed to its overhangs with not an empty seat in the house – and with plenty of hustlers outside its gates begging for tickets.

Related: London City Guide

Fifth Down and Throw-In to Go

Some British fans grasp American football, but it’s clear the casual fan has a lot to learn – even while they’re dropping major Pounds Sterling for NFL tickets. The most amusing discussion I overheard was one older UK spectator failing to grasp the specialization of NFL football. He questioned why the Jags had to bring on a special player just to do the kicking. It never occurred to him that it’s unlikely a 6’8”, 360 lb. offensive tackle will jump into extra point duty.

I tried explaining the objective to the game to a friendly waitress working the Wembley Press Box. After going through the various positions, the four downs, the 100 yard field, etc., she asked me how a team scores a goal during the match. Did they need to kick it though those high sticks? I obviously failed in my task.

Mixed Local Reaction

Beyond Wembley, in the sea of UK pop culture, the reaction to a possible permanent NFL London franchise remains mixed. By chatting up the average Brit I came across on unrelated press work, there’s a concern that the current slate of three games annually in London makes American football special – drawing sellout crowds in a three and out environment. Adding five more games (and playing eight with one of the teams remaining constant) sheds some of that exclusivity and novelty.

THere’s also the question of a venue. England’s national soccer coach, Roy Hodgson, complained to the British press before the Cowboys/Jaguars tilt that Wembley’s American visitors tore up the stadium pitch, endangering the health of his players. If London gets their team, would the NFL demand a new facility somewhere amidst the most expensive real estate in Europe?

None of that takes into consideration the NFL Players Association’s openly expressed reluctance for UK football. Scheduling eight London games a year could men travel headaches and the need for more bye weeks to allow jet lag recovery (especially for West Coast teams).

It’s obvious most NFL players won’t want to live in London, separated from their American friends and family a minimum six hour flight away. Also, Britain-based pro football players would need to be paid in British Pounds or have their salaries adjusted for an often ugly exchange rate.

Inevitable Necessity

In the end, none of that really matters. The logistics will be worked out, and players asked to play in London will do so if they like their jobs. Londoners will adjust to the American sports invasion, even if it means constructing another venue in their midst.

The convincing factor played out in the press box as I watched the Cowboys roll. Corporate executives from the UK bent the collective ear of American NFL reps, throwing around buzzwords like brand awareness, corporate sponsorship and product tie-ins. More than anything, there was an urgency to attract youth.

None of those movers and shakers would go on the record, but that wasn’t essential. While no official plan is in place, all of the necessary players are on the field. Full-time football amidst England’s mountains green will come together because the NFL – arguably the most successful and powerful professional sports organization in the world – wants London.


// ad on openWeb