An NFL franchise in the United Kingdom is becoming a real possibility. The international games continue to be a success, and the fan base in the UK is growing year-on-year.
There were four NFL games in London in the 2019 regular season – two at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, two at Wembley – with a total attendance just shy of 290,000.
The entertainment was a mixed bag, but the NFL fan base in the UK is loyal. There’s major excitement around the announcement of the 2020 NFL London schedule.
A lot has been written about bringing an NFL franchise to London. It’s a divisive issue, and not just among American fans.
Plenty of Brits aren’t keen on the idea, though others would welcome the opportunity to see more NFL in the UK, and hopefully cheaper ticket prices as a result.
While we aren’t going to unite those polarised groups, this article is going to take a look at the pros and cons of an NFL franchise on this side of the Atlantic.
Ready-made Fan Base
The demand for the NFL is already there. There are significant fan bases for every NFL team.
A trip to a Premier League match will involve plenty of sightings of NFL hats and caps, and the online NFL-supporting community continues to expand.
While there are issues with such an established fan base (we will come onto that later), it’s a positive, too.
The arrival of a franchise (most likely the Jacksonville Jaguars) wouldn’t be building from nothing, even if a lot of fans are travelling to support the Jags’ opponents rather than cheer on the new franchise.
It might not be ideal for the Jaguars, but it’s a way to guarantee demand for tickets. Even when the schedule provides matchups that are unlikely to become one of the best NFL UK London games, tickets sell rapidly.
The support, and commitment, of British NFL fans cannot be overstated. Imagine the London Jaguars hosting the New England Patriots or Dallas Cowboys: There would be no shortage of interest.
Opens League To More Fans
As well as working for the established fans, who may choose to stick with their teams, having a franchise in this country might open more people’s eyes to the NFL.
Using the London Jaguars as an example, it gives potential new fans an obvious team to support. It’s not easy picking an NFL team to follow.
Many soccer fans support their local team. That isn’t an option for overseas NFL fans at the moment.
American football is less popular in the rest of Europe. It has a long way to go before it can rival basketball and soccer.
Perhaps that would change with a franchise over here, a franchise that was more accessible to people in Paris, Berlin and Madrid.
Tottenham’s new stadium was built with an NFL franchise in mind. The pitch transformation is phenomenal, but it’s little more than a gimmick if it’s only used twice per year.
It doesn’t justify a franchise in the capital, of course, nor does it guarantee it will be a success. Having a purpose-built venue makes a difference, though.
The visitors’ experience at Spurs’ stadium is different from Wembley, and while it will obviously be shared with the Premier League club, it would give a London franchise a proper home.
Fans Already Support Teams
The flip side of an established fan base is that they already have strong allegiances. Allegiances to teams thousands of miles away, sure, but fans aren’t going to throw that away just because a team appeared in London.
The capital would obviously be the base of a British NFL franchise – that brings its own issues too.
Travelling to London isn’t easy for millions in the UK. A six, seven or eight-hour roundtrip should not be downplayed.
Fans in Glasgow, Plymouth or Liverpool would have a trek to get to London, a journey that would limit most to only occasional games. Does that do enough to entice them to alter their NFL fandom?
Travel is a staple of American sports. Teams are used to flying across the continent for a game. Adding an extra few hours to that, and the Atlantic Ocean, changes the situation.
The NFL schedule provides teams with rest aplenty, including a bye week and usually a week between games.
Any Monday-Thursday weeks would be near-impossible for a London franchise unless both were played at home.
Getting stateside to make some shock first round NFL draft picks wouldn’t be a problem, but the week-to-week schedule could work against a London franchise.
The other alternative would be the NFL making significant adjustments, which may not be too popular with their competitors.
Would a London NFL franchise be able to survive a deep rebuild? That is, arguably, the most important question of all. American fans have a different relationship with sport compared to Brits with their soccer teams.
Rebuilds are a necessary evil, and some fans will drift away during those down years.
Without the long-term, core support, a London franchise could quickly fade to irrelevance if they were uncompetitive, particularly in their first couple of seasons.
Home games in a half-full stadium with fans supporting their opponents would not be a disastrous outcome, but it’s hardly what the league have in mind.
A team that spends all 16 regular season games as massive NFL betting underdogs is unlikely to do much for the sport in this country.
Success on the field will be the best chance of success off it. There will be no guarantee of positive results; the NFL is notoriously unpredictable, injuries can derail the season even of a Super Bowl favourite.
An NFL franchise in London would be a risk. It would divide fans in the UK and the US, but it might be a necessary gamble as the league looks to expand on this side of the ocean.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo*