Live NFL returned to the UK this week, celebrating its 10th birthday. I remember that first game with fondness as the Dolphins and Giants players tore up the Wembley turf in pouring October rain.
Being a huge fan of the NFL it has always been an absolute privilege for me to travel up to London to see some of the biggest sport stars in the world grace the Wembley turf. Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Calvin Johnson – I love it, and have appreciated every moment.
With live NFL of course comes tailgating and London is no different. Pre-match there are an array of entertainments, food and drink stalls and shops, from time to time they even bring over the Lombardi Trophy so that you can get a picture with it.
One of my fondest London NFL memories came at the tailgate where having acquired a stray yellow security vest my friend waded into a disagreement between security and a group of people playing touch football in the car park, around 100 people had gathered to watch and cheered as my pal – pretending to be staff – told the security guys that ‘it was ok, he’d had a word and we are going to let them play’. It didn’t wash but he got one of the biggest cheers of the day.
In pre-season it was announced that from 2018 Tottenham FC will host 2 games a year in their new 61000 seat stadium, further increasing the amount of fixtures in the UK.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have become regulars in London, signing up to at least 4 years of bringing one of their home games to the UK. The owner of the Jaguars Shahid Khan also owns UK football team Fulham FC, leading to speculation that they may potentially move permanently to the UK and taking part in the NFL as a UK Franchise.
London based games have not been so popular with everyone however. The NFL season is made up of just 17 weeks and 16 games per side. This in turn means that fans of Jacksonville, or indeed any home team that gives up a game for London, will only get 7 home games a year. This could be difficult for UK fans to comprehend; a fan of Tottenham would be used to 19 home games a year in the league plus many more for Cup and Europe. Losing a home game to the UK, it’s understandable that US fans are frustrated.
It is obvious to me that broadening the horizons of the NFL brand, and cashing in on sell out fixtures is a key marketing strategy for the NFL. While it cares for its fan, more important is the expansion of the company in world markets.
As much as I love the NFL and going to see games in London, I am inclined to side with the US fan. I would hate to be in their situation. We are all very aware how much watching your favourite team can cost the average person buying a season ticket alone, to lose 1/8th of fixtures would never please you.
I also feel that perhaps the NFL is going to go too far in its push towards the UK. We are big fans of the sport, and so far have sold out fixtures, but again, it is expensive and the day out as a whole can cost even more. Fans come from all over the UK to watch and should the amount of fixtures expand further, I do not feel that they will all be shown the same amount of passion. Perhaps only attending one or two a year. One way around this would be to spread the fixtures around the UK, utilising big grounds and population density in Manchester, Glasgow or Newcastle. NFLUK have so far not looked at scheduling a match outside of London but they have recently sent their podcast and Fan Forums on tour, with much success.
This brings me onto the long rumored London franchise, would it ever happen? I don’t know, but I see many roadblocks. For example, can the NFL expect the 49ers or Seahawks to make a 9000 mile round trip to London? So far a team playing in London has had their bye the following week, but bye’s only cover a small part of the season, what about week 1? Week 2? Week 17 before you are potentially traveling again in the playoffs?
As a Seahawks fan myself I would not be tempted to switch my allegiance to the “local” team. The commitment you feel when you are a fan of a side is much stronger than that, which is why when your team wins or loses it means so much to you. I dare say that most UK based fans of NFL teams feel the same way.
Overall, the London NFL games have been a resounding hit, but my advice to the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – enjoy what has been working, but be careful about taking it too far.
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