An NFL team in London?

10/17/2012

Part 6 of 6 in a series
By Neil Reynolds
Special to Profootballhof.com


Ever since the National Football League started playing regular season games in the United Kingdom there has been much speculation and discussion about the possibility of a London franchise in the future.

Some of the biggest names in the sport have weighed in on the debate in the past and the subject is bound to get even more attention following this week’s announcement of a second regular season game for the U.K. in 2013.

First, it was announced that the Jacksonville Jaguars would play host to the San Francisco 49ers at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. That game will be part of a four-year commitment the Jaguars are making to the U.K. And earlier this week, the NFL revealed that the Minnesota Vikings will host the Pittsburgh Steelers next season on Sunday, Sept. 29.

“This is a very significant and important step going forward for the U.K. and for the NFL in general. We wanted to deliver two games for our fans in London,” announced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Since we started playing regular season games in London five years ago, we have heard very clearly from our U.K. fans – they want more football,” continued the Commissioner. “We are excited to play two games in London and take this next step in the growth of our game.  We believe that more football will lead to more fans.

“Part of our theory here is that London could someday be a host for an NFL franchise. Every time we’ve taken another step in exposing our game to a global audience, they’ve wanted more. We went from preseason games, because they wanted to see competitive games with the best players, to regular season games and now they want more.”

Goodell’s thoughts are echoed by many high-powered officials in league and team circles, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who will see his team play in London for the second time in three years when they clash with the Rams in Week 8 on Oct. 28.

Kraft stressed during an interview with me in July, “We love our brothers and sisters over in the U.K. I think we’re starting to tap out in the United States. If you look at the last Super Bowl we were in, we had over 180 million people watching – that’s almost two thirds of America. It was people from the crib to senior citizens.

“So for us to grow the game, we have to expand globally,” Kraft commented. “And part of that is making sure our fans understand the game. I think the U.K. and German fans are the most experienced in that area. Having seen the kind of support we have received here, it is the intention of the NFL owners to get two games here, starting next year.”

Kraft is certainly a powerful ally for the NFL U.K. office to have when it comes to bidding for further regular season games in the future. Once dubbed as “the man who saved pro football” by then-Colts center Jeff Saturday, Kraft has been highly influential in recent labor and television negotiations.

While he is in favor of two games per year in the U.K., Kraft seems prepared to go much further and revealed: “I personally think we should have a franchise in the U.K. I think I said that last time we were over here and before this next decade is out, I hope we have a team here. I think that would be right for the NFL and this fan base has proven they deserve it.

“We’re only going to be able to expand and grow as a league if we get this kind of growth internationally. The only bad part is that I can assure you it won’t be the Patriots who are moving here.”

The success – on and off the field – of the five regular season games played in the U.K. to date has certainly helped strengthen the possibility of a British NFL franchise. Those who have personally experienced the passion of the fans in the U.K. have come away impressed.

Shawntae Spencer played cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers in their 2010 International Series win over the Denver Broncos. He said, “We’ve got to get an NFL team over in the UK. The energy is unbelievable – the fans, the wave, the flags. It really felt like a home game for us when we played the Broncos.”

Even those who have never played a game in London have witnessed the fervent support from the sell-out crowds and wondered what it would be like to play on the other side of the pond.

“I love the fact regular season games are being played in the U.K.” said Green Bay Packers quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. “I’d love to come over there. It’s great to expand the game to the rest of the world and there are some incredible sports fans in Europe. You can feel the passion for the NFL from the fans in England. I know the games at Wembley have been great and I hope to be part of one in the future.”

Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh echoed: “Hopefully, I will get to come over and experience playing at Wembley. I’m excited about the support we have for the NFL over in the U.K.”

Former NFL head coach and current FOX and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick accepts that further globalization of America’s premier sports league is inevitable.

“When you see the response the NFL gets internationally, there’s no question it’s heading that way,” Billick admitted. “There’s talk of having a team in London. I think it would be phenomenal to have a presence like that.

“I think it would be very well received. As a coach, the biggest question becomes, ‘How does that work logistically? How does that work for the team traveling back to the States and vice versa?’”

With five regular season games already in the record books and the possibility of a London NFL franchise regularly featured on the news agenda, the United Kingdom remains one of professional football’s key international markets. NFL games across the pond date back to 1983 and some of the greatest names in the sport’s history have graced the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

“Football in the UK” is a series of articles for Profootballhof.com looking at the growth of professional football in the UK, British NFL journalist and Sky Sports television presenter Neil Reynolds examines the league’s history overseas, recalls some of the great games played in England’s capital city and assesses the chances of a British NFL franchise in the future. The series will run each Wednesday on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website through Week 8 when the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams play in London.

In his sixth and final article of the series, Reynolds  debates the possibility of the NFL placing a franchise in London. He asked numerous experts about the future of professional football in the U.K.

Part 5 Regular season games the norm
Part 4
"Real NFL games"
Part 3 Hall of Famers at Wembley
Part 2 Whetting the global appetite
Part 1 – 1986 American Bowl

The logistical side of basing an NFL team in the United Kingdom is still considered the biggest hurdle to a London franchise. The NFL would probably need to grow on the estimated fan base of two million fervent supporters but recent statistics suggest that is likely to happen with more games in the market.

Since playing regular season games in the U.K. in 2007, the NFL has seen its television viewing figures rise by 154 percent. And viewing figures for the Super Bowl alone have jumped by 74 percent.

NFL U.K. Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood said, “I think the first chapter of our story has been considered a success. Jacksonville returning is also a sign of maturity of the concept.

“What this now does is allow us to test if we can bring in more new fans and boost a single-team recognition. Once that period has come up we will then have learned an awful lot about it and know what the viability is for us going forward. We will then be in a great position to make a call on a London franchise.”
 
Among some of the more prominent media members in the United States, opinion is divided on whether a London franchise will happen within the relatively near future.

Jason LaCanfora of CBS insisted: “I want to see kids around the world playing American football. And I truly, truly hope and expect to see a franchise in London before I’m done covering the NFL.”

Michael Silver, of Yahoo! Sports added: “I love the idea of regular season games in the U.K. and I got to go to the Dolphins-Giants game in 2007. And I thought the Super Bowl in London was an A-plus idea. Let me think, London or Jacksonville… London or Jacksonville – it’s not really a tough call.

“But it is a tough call when it comes to discussing a London franchise. The first thing you have to bear in mind is that 32 is a good number. But what an exciting thing it would be to have a franchise in London – now it’s not just a spectacle and an event. It’s very different if you have fan loyalty over there and you have a franchise.”

Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, concluded: “I vacillate between thinking that there is going to be an NFL franchise in London in my lifetime and not. But I think there are a lot of owners who are very interested in not only playing games overseas, but also in having a franchise overseas.

“I’m 54 years old and I would say I will cover this game for another 14 or 15 years. I would say in my professional lifetime it is 50-50 that there will be a team in London before I’m finished in this business.”


Neil Reynolds has covered the NFL as a journalist and broadcaster since 1991. He is currently serving as co-presenter of NFL coverage in the United Kingdom on Sky Sports and also has experience presenting BBC Radio’s NFL coverage in 2009 and 2010. The author of “Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players,” Reynolds has worked for British football magazines First Down and Gridiron and has also written for American publications and websites such as NFL.com, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Pittsburgh Post-Press Gazette. He currently writes for nfluk.com, SkySports.com and Sky.com and has interviewed some of the biggest names in football, including Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Ray Lewis and Tom Brady.

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