On the face of it Week 4 just looks like most of the previous Sundays that have seen London host a regular season NFL game. Sure this time the Wembley game will feature the biggest ‘British born’ star to have played in the series so far and there won’t be an opportunity missed to promote the #JayTrain and his UK roots. But it’s partly what isn’t going on in London this weekend that’ll potentially shape the next steps of the NFL’s international expansion.
Every year the NFL games in London bring about a series of new tests and studies. In the early years it was ‘could the league sell out a game in back to back seasons?’. Then it progressed to ‘would two games a year sell out?’ before that increased to three games and ‘would games on back to back weekends work?’. Last year the Indianapolis Colts trialed being a team to leave London and not enter their bye week for the first time. As NFLUK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood admits, all eyes were on the Colts in week 5 last year as they went home to face the listless Chicago Bears. Could a team play in London and return to the U.S. to play the following Sunday and still be competitive or not suffer from a disadvantage? Now the NFL got a bit lucky with the Colts opponents in that game but the struggling Bears still ran them close with the Colts pulling out the win on the last drive of the game. It proved however that a team could play in London and win the following week back home.
This week it moves on to the next level. Can a team, the Jaguars, return from London and go straight on the road and win (or at least compete)? They play on the East Coast against, fortunately for NFLUK again, a supposedly ‘tanking’ New York Jets team? Last week’s game against the Dolphins will now give the test some more credence but it’s still one that the Jaguars are favourites for. If they do leave victorious it’s another tick in the checklist towards more flexible scheduling for teams playing in the UK and longer term, the feasibility and viability of a London franchise.
A bit further down the East coast the Ravens will replicate what the Colts did last year only this time the test will be facing a huge division rival at home. Can the Ravens pick themselves up off the floor and get their season back on track? The Steelers themselves looked muted against the Bears last week and noises around the anthem protests coming out of the locker room gives cause for concern about their own team harmony.
In fact the Ravens may be the team that the league wants to see win most coming after John Harbaugh’s comments about playing in London this week. Lose against Pittsburgh and you can be sure Harbaugh will point to the inconvenience of travelling back from London before this game too. As always with these things perception is reality and any anti-London rhetoric may make it harder to convince certain teams to agree, if they have that choice, to play abroad. Especially against the Jaguars after they’ve now won three in a row at Wembley and especially if they’re looking for a team to give up their home game against Jacksonville next year to test a team playing back to back in London (speaking to Vernon Kay on Sky Sports pre-game, Shad Kahn alluded to the point that they might play two games in London next year but did not say whether it would be two home games or one of each).
If both teams pull out the win then, whether you agree with it or not, talk of a potential London franchise will only get louder. It won’t be overlooked that other sport leagues around the world are also expanding across continents. You only have to look at Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere, from 2018 the second tier of Rugby League in this country will have a Canadian franchise and this year’s Guinness Pro 14 introduced two South African teams to the Celtic league. Globalisation is happening and moving quickly in sport but there’s still a lot of tests that need to be run to find out whether it can truly be a success in the long term.
There is of course one other reason that Sunday is now so important for NFL UK. The storm around Donald Trump’s continued verbal assault on the NFL, the anthem protests (not actual protests of the anthem of course but using the anthem to peacefully protest inequality and racial justice) and the reaction to them has meant the NFL has been in the headlines in the UK media like never before (and that even includes Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction!).
The game is live on BBC2 this Sunday afternoon and it’s unlikely there will be another time when so much casual attention will be paid to the sport. It’ll most likely beat the International Series record from 2008 of 700,000 viewers, certainly last years best of 420,000 watching NY Giants v LA Rams. Trump has unwittingly done the NFL a huge marketing favour in the UK this week. If a franchise ever does relocate here then it can be said that the president will have played his part in making it happen! I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear that…
So while most eyes and concentration will be on Wembley this Sunday as London enjoys hosting one of it’s own players and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, not to mention the expectation of a shootout, two games that have just as much importance for the future of the NFL in the UK kick of minutes afterwards over 3000 miles away. Oh and we’ve reached the quarter point of the season, already.
Copyright photo: Skysports.com