Following another successful International Series game at Wembley last night between Jacksonville and San Francisco the future of American Football in England looks promising, albeit uncertain, beyond the three games scheduled for next season. This year saw the first time that two regular season games in the same season were held in London, and with the amount of International Series games gradually increasing it’s become reasonable to ponder what the natural progression for America’s biggest sport is on these shores.
While there has been much speculation as to what might transpire in the future lets first take a look at what we already know about the situation. One thing for certain is that the demand for football in England is there, as shown by the fact that the eight International Series games held at Wembley have all sold out since the first one took place between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins in 2007. The fan base over here is growing and have shown a willingness to keep coming back for more, regardless of the teams in action. It’s also worth noting that the games played at Wembley haven’t featured the most attractive match-ups nor have they been particularly exciting contests. Although the first game in 2007 featured the eventual Superbowl champion Giants the Dolphins were on there way to a 1-15 season, while in recent years UK fans have been subjected to watching terrible teams such as this years Jaguars (currently 0-8) and the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13) in action.
One aspect of the International Series’ future that has been set in stone is that the Jaguars will be back to play a ‘home’ game at Wembley in each of the next three seasons. Jacksonville may not be a good team, in fact the 2013 edition could be remembered as one of the worst in recent NFL history, but one positive is that they’ll likely earn the top pick in next April’s draft and be in a position to draft a Quarterback from what is considered one of the deepest classes in memory. An exciting prospect such as Teddy Bridgewater would not only give the franchise hope for the future but also increase British supporters interest in watching the Jaguars play. With Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan having acquired Premier League football team Fulham F.C over the summer he has established strong ties to the city, which may or may not precede a push for the Jaguars to relocate to London in the future.
Last week the six contestants in next years three International Series games were confirmed, as well as the specific match-ups that will take place. The Jaguars will host the Dallas Cowboys, one of the leagues most iconic teams and a big draw for those interested in attending the game. I’d argue that of the 14 previous Wembley contestants only New England has the same kind of pulling power in the UK as the Cowboys, although San Francisco certainly have a large fan-base themselves thanks to their success back in the 80’s. The second confirmed match-up pits Detroit against Atlanta with the latter designated as the home team, while the third game sees Oakland ‘visit’ Miami. Both have the potential to be intriguing encounters, although it goes without saying that there is still a lot of time between now and next season, meaning plenty can change for each team in the way of on and off-field personnel. Detroit currently look like the best of the four teams and boast stars such as Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, yet both Oakland and Miami have the potential to be good teams and have shown flashes this year so that game could be a contest between two contenders. Atlanta may have been a let down so far in 2013 but as long as they have Matt Ryan at Quarterback they should remain at least somewhat competitive and a bounce-back season in 2014 is far from unlikely.
Looking at the situation from a more long term perspective, Peter King (he of Sports Illustrated and Monday Morning QB fame) revealed in his column today that the NFL is considering a number of options at this moment in time, including moving an existing franchise to London or creating an entirely new one as part of the venture. Another option was increasing the number of games hosted annually in the UK to eight, with a rotation policy installed in an effort to ensure that no team was at a disadvantage. Of the three options I firmly believe that the first two comfortably trump the third. I don’t like the idea of having eight near random games at Wembley each season and there are a number of reasons why. I think that by not presenting the fans in England with a consistent product there is little chance of the current fan base expanding, primarily because supporters won’t develop an affinity for any one team. Having one or two games a season at Wembley featuring a mixture of teams is fine because supporters treat the games as a one off event where there is an element of novelty involved, and as a result they are willing to outlay the money for a ticket once per annum, even if their team isn’t playing. However I strongly believe that if there are as many as eight games per season the same fans are more likely to pick and choose which games they attend due to a combination of factors, primarily financial. As a West Ham United F.C supporter I go to watch them a dozen or so times a season, but I’d have no interest in paying £50 to go and watch two football teams who I have no affinity with playing against each other. I think the same logic applies to British NFL fans, who are far more likely to keep coming back if they have the opportunity to watch “their” team develop, even if that team doesn’t initially achieve success. It’ll be interesting to see how well the Jaguars are supported against the Cowboys next season and again in 2015 and 2016, and whether or not their following swells with each game could well dictate whether their future lies in North Florida or North London.
Moving an existing franchise to England will be difficult for the league to do, not least because of the negative press the move would receive from the American press and the inevitable backlash from tenants of the teams previous location. That’s understandable; after all, imagine if the Premier League discarded an English team to make room for a side from across the pond. As a result adding an expansion team could be the best option, however that would leave the league unbalanced at 33 teams and cause fresh problems. The leagues current structure is ideal, with the 32 teams split evenly into eight divisions across the two conferences. An odd number of teams in the NFL is undesirable, yet the creation of a London franchise could also give the league the perfect reason to add another team in America’s second largest television market after New York – Los Angeles. Roger Godell appears to be set on increasing the NFL’s revenue streams wherever possible, and by adding two franchises to two burgeoning markets he has the opportunity to do just that and kill two birds with one metaphorical stone. None of the cities that currently own an NFL franchise would lose out as a result of the move, and though travel logistics remain an issue for a London based franchise after eight International Series games you’d to figure that particular problem could be easily overcome.
The NFL is entering uncharted territory with its overseas experiment, and with the passionate UK fans so far passing every test thrown at them the league looks set to expand the International Series program even further. Which direction Roger Godell and co eventually choose to go remains to be seen.
What do you think of the prospect of London having its very own NFL franchise? Have your say in the comments or by tweeting me: @fredjstanley