The Miami Dolphins 38-17 win over the Oakland Raiders at Wembley on September 28 did more than help Joe Philbin’s side get back on track and improve their record to 2-2.
It was a game that looks set to commence an exciting period for the NFL on these shores, in what was the first of three landmark regular season games to be played at Wembley Stadium during the 2014 season.
Despite falling behind to a Brian Leonhardt touchdown on a terrific first drive orchestrated by rookie quarterback Derek Carr, the Dolphins dominated proceedings in London.
Led by a resurgent Ryan Tannehill, who had faced adversity in the lead up to the game with some suggestions he may be benched in favour of Matt Moore, he threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns to guide them to a resounding win.
In front of yet another sell-out crowd, the ninth International Series game to be played on this side of the pond didn’t disappoint. Unless of course you are a Raiders fan, in which case the game proved to be the last for embattled Head coach Dennis Allen who was fired just 24 hours later, and also saw signal-caller Carr pick up an MCL/high ankle sprain on a quarterback scramble in the process.
However, the significance of the increase in the amount of games being played in the UK cannot be underestimated. It shows there is a market to be tapped into, and league commissioner Roger Goodell knows it. Aided by strong TV coverage, the fan-base is growing at a rapid rate leading some to suggest a UK franchise may be on the horizon. In fact, some news outlets have suggested it could even happen as early as 2021.
With several NFL teams, including the St Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars not on particularly long-term leases with regards to their stadiums, there would not be a shortage of options if a team should relocate to these shores. It has to be said though, many UK based NFL fans are averse to seeing a franchise relocate here, not least because of the logistical problems that would bring.
The most obvious of those is the distance teams would have to travel, not to mention the adjustment in time difference they would have to go through. It is this issue which would almost certainly prevent a game in London getting prime time billing in the United States – the slot normally occupied by the 8.30pm Eastern Time Sunday Night Football game on NBC.
Moreover, would players of an existing franchise (most likely the Jaguars due to Shahid Khan’s links to Fulham, or possibly the Rams due to Stan Kroenke’s connection to Arsenal) be willing to relocate to another country?
Another pressing issue surrounds the possible relocation of a franchise from America to Wembley. Moving a team would rip apart the existing fan-base and leave them out in the cold. It happened when the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, and it happened when Art Modell took the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore to form today’s Ravens in the mid-1990s.
That’s not forgetting the fact that the vast majority of fans in this country already have an allegiance, and it is questionable whether they would lend their support to a London team eight times a season.
The NFL International Series is a tremendous spectacle. In fact it’s not just the game day experience, but rather the whole weekend that is unlike any other sporting event in the UK currently. Half a million plus fans continuously pack London’s Regent Street every year. The atmosphere at Wembley Stadium itself is phenomenal and many have likened it to having a mini Super Bowl feel to it.
The league continue to up the number of games played outside the US every season. In 2013, we saw two games and this year Wembley will host three.
If a franchise is going to be at all feasible then the UK fan-base must prove it can sell-out four, five, possibly even six games before we can move forward and discuss further its viability. With the Detroit Lions playing the Atlanta Falcons this month, and the Dallas Cowboys meeting the Jacksonville Jaguars in November, it sure is going to be thrilling for UK based NFL fans in particular.
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. However, some remain skeptical as to whether this will come to fruitation.
Having a few games every NFL season is enough to maintain, and even grow the interest in the sport here. Many other fans wouldn’t want to compromise or even overshadow the terrific spectacle these games at Wembley currently are.
Talks will continue as will the endless speculation. One thing is certain however, the NFL’s popularity continues to move in the right direction.