In 1986 the NFL came to London for the first time in the form of the American Bowl, an exhibition game that had all the razzmatazz of the NFL but none of the meaning. In 2007 it was back for real. One regular season game a year became two and then three and if the NFL stays true to their expectations then by 2022 three games will become eight as London will be home to a real NFL franchise.
The question here is does actually having an NFL team in the United Kingdom have longevity? Selling out three games a year is one thing but selling out eight games a year with the same team playing each time is another prospect and the NFL should not just assume that the sell outs will continue.
The NFL first came to the UK via television in 1982 and its popularity grew despite the limited coverage. Channel 4 produced a weekly highlights programme and the only real live NFL you could access was via Armed Forces Radio and that’s if you could (a) Get a signal and (b) Hold on to it.
Any source of NFL news for UK fans before the internet was in the form of a weekly newspaper called ‘First Down’ which, ironically was killed off by the internet in 2007. Other magazines such as Touchdown and Gridiron also came and went. In 1994 Sky Sports started showing live NFL games they were again joined by Channel 4 (who had stopped and started on several occasions) some other channels such as Channel 5 and ESPN NFL coverage came and went.
As it stands today British fans can watch two live games or Redzone via Sky Sports on a Sunday, highlights and the late night Sunday game on Channel 4 and the Monday night game live on British Eurosport. Throw in the internet subscription package NFL Game Pass, the equivalent of NFL Sunday Ticket and fans can watch any and every game that they want providing they are willing to pay a little extra for it. In short British fans have never had it so good and we haven’t even mentioned the regular season games being played at Wembley yet.
But just because they could has anyone asked if they should?
Despite all the coverage and the obvious, large if somewhat underground NFL fan base in the UK, has anyone stopped to ask if the British fans actually want an NFL franchise here in the UK? Would they embrace the idea long term? What you are asking fans to do is attend eight regular season home games in London to watch a team that in the most part is not their team because they already have their own team which is why when you attend an NFL game in London you see thirty-two different team jersey’s being worn in the stands.
As the majority of British fans already have an emotional investment in another team would they want to be a regular attendee of an NFL game featuring two ‘other’ teams and for those not already emotionally invested in another team are these the type of fans that are likely to go and watch eight or even four games a year at Wembley? For those that had supported a team for a number of years would surely rather watch their own team play every week rather than pay to go and watch two different teams play, I know I would.
The one game at Wembley that did not sell out was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Chicago Bears in 2010 and although the NFL point to tickets going on sale later than normal because of the NFL lockout that occurred that off season, there was still plenty of time for that game to sell out. The real reason for the smaller crowd which was approximately seven thousand less than normal for these games was probably because Tampa had been before and were not very good and although Chicago do have a decent following in the UK they lack the star appeal of other teams like the Patriots or Cowboys to the regular UK fan.
The reason the two Jaguars games have sold out is because of the teams they played, the 49ers and the Cowboys but the real test will come in 2015 when they play the Buffalo Bills a team that has very little support in the UK.
Have the NFL just seen the dollar signs from the current games and decided any game that put here will sell out? There are a number of games that clearly would not like the Jaguars against the Titans for example. But how low do the crowds have to get before the plug is pulled? Surely anything below 60,000 would be putting the project at risk or does it have to go down below the current lowest league average of 50,000?
Keeping the 1.30 UK time may help as some fans may still have enough time to get somewhere to watch their own team play but this is still America’s game and when a team from the West coast plays here the time there would be 5.30 in the morning.
I guess the point here is that despite the really good attendances so far the NFL should consider the many different factors that come with relocating a team over 3000 miles from where it really should be.