There have been 17 games since 2007. Scarcely could it be believed that nine years ago the NFL rocked up on these shores, and it is safe to say they are not going anywhere soon. All signs from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding developments in the UK point to the establishment of a franchise on this side of the Atlantic.
Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals provided yet another reminder of the NFL’s international popularity. A week earlier, Twickenham hosted an NFL game for the first time in front of over 74,000 people; all of this happening against the backdrop of NFL UK strengthening ties with the league’s offices in New York. With comprehensive media coverage and even a highlights show on the BBC, there arguably has not been a better time to be an NFL fan in the UK.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, who have played one ‘home’ game a season at Wembley since 2013, are contracted to return every year until 2020, while Tottenham’s new ground has been developed with the NFL in mind and will begin to host up to 10 games when it is completed.
Such an investment is not only testament to what Goodell has repeatedly referred to as the ‘loyalty’ of the fan-base here, it is indicative of a project that Goodell himself has championed. Talk from earlier this year suggests that a franchise could be based here by 2022.
What once seemed a fad, a brief fixation with an unfamiliar sport, has developed into something much bigger. Far from being just another regular season game, it is a celebration of a sport the UK has grown to love. But for many, a UK franchise is too much of a stretch or, at the very least, a logistical impossibility. For others, it is another cynical ploy by the league to increase its revenue by capitalising on thousands of new supporters. The reality is rather different.
While the International Series as a spectacle is something special, it is questionable whether a franchise would be sustainable in the long run. Many of those who attend games here do so out of a love for the game and the vast majority already have allegiances. The question then becomes whether they be willing to lend their support to a London franchise eight times a season? It rather clouds the discussion.
In truth, I am sceptical as to whether a franchise would work. It would replace a three-times-a-season affair with an additional five games and, while ticket sales seem to indicate the insatiable desire for American football here, it would render the current International Series obsolete. One of the pulls of the league for prospective supporters is the unique atmosphere at NFL games. Lose that and you take one of the most anticipated events of the UK sporting calendar.
The league’s timeframe for when a franchise may relocate to London is also speculative and is largely based on trends and estimates, with the International Series and NFL services such as Game Pass being used as indicators. That is problematic.
Equally, for detractors, the expansion of the amount of games in the UK is troubling in itself. It looks increasingly likely that the Jaguars, given their links to the UK through Shahid Khan’s ownership of Fulham, would be the most obvious candidate to relocate in the future. For many, the idea of a team giving up a home game is inexcusable, leaving fans in the US one game short and Jacksonville fans, for example, sweating over the future of their team.
It is the equivalent of what would have happened had the Premier League gone ahead with a 39th game overseas every season, a plan mooted for several years.
There is no doubt that the International Series has been a breath of fresh air. It has allowed sports fans here to explore something that would otherwise have been out of reach and has had positive impacts at university level too.
A franchise is a different thing entirely, requiring a level of commitment from UK fans that, for some, may be too much to ask.
Image courtesy of Daniel