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Will the NFL Play in London Again?

24 Oct, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Back in May, nobody was surprised when the NFL did not schedule any games in London for the 2020 season.

However, it appears we may not be seeing any again for some time. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ contract with the NFL to play one home game a season in London has quietly expired and the franchise appears to be undecided on when (or even whether) they will continue to play in the English capital.

According to Sports Pro Media, team owner Shahid Khan says there is “nothing on the table” in terms of plans.

“…At this point, there's nothing planned,” Khan told reporters during a press conference. “I think I want to pursue whatever keeps football viable and important in Jacksonville.”

Sports Pro Media notes that the Jags have played a game in London every season since 2013. And last year, the Jags said the London game accounted for 11 percent of their local revenue, with an 8 percent spike in UK viewers for Sunday night games.

But aside from confirming that the franchise’s contract with the NFL has ended, Khan said that were no firm plans yet to renew the deal.

That’s not to say another team won’t jump at the idea, and it could be that once it is reasonable to host live sports to large crowds again, Jacksonville will be back in London But at this point, it appears there is much that remains to be decided.

The concept of international football is not without its fans, and it has, in fact, made headway over the years. In addition to the increased popularity and viewership, in 2018, an NFL-only venue was announced as being in construction on the grounds of the new soccer stadium for Tottenham Hotspur.

As SDM writer Michael Popke noted in 2016, the NFL obviously likes the concept of taking its brand worldwide, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was talk of having an actual team based in London by 2022. However, there are plenty of reasons against that the concept of a team with a base anywhere other than the continental U.S.

Those Who Do Not Learn from History… The last time American football tested the international waters, it didn’t end well. The World League of American Football was formed by the NFL in 1989. It played under that name (with breaks when it did not run in 1993 and 1994) until 1998 when it was rebranded as the NFL Europe League or NFL Europe, a name that lasted until 2006.

In 2007, the league officially changed its name to NFL Europa. Unfortunately, 2007 also turned out to be the last year for the league. According to the Washington Post, Commissioner Roger Goodell closed the league, stating that it was time to develop a new international strategy, and that folding NFL Europa was the "best business decision." (The league reportedly was losing about $30 million a season at the time, so he had a point).

While there is no doubt the NFL’s international games over the past few years have been successful, the prospect of establishing a full-time team in England seems dubious, even without the problems caused by COVID-19.

It’s Not Realistic: A game that occurs once a season is a fun change of pace – but establishing teams in other countries that would necessitate regular travelling for games back and forth across the Atlantic (and across the country, for those in the Midwest and West) would be grueling. Problems such as the time change, for example, need to be taken into consideration. And not just in terms of jetlag but in terms of game start times. London alone is five hours ahead of Eastern time alone, and eight hours ahead of Pacific time. There’s really no good start time for a game.

While it’s easy to say that many other athletes in professional sports suffer from jetlag because of international travel (pro tennis and golf, for example), it’s a different scenario. All those athletes are on the same tours so everyone is moving at the same time and can be seen as being equally disadvantaged. If one team’s home advantage is that significant, it can be seen as an undue hardship for other teams.

There Really Isn’t a Football Culture Abroad – at Least Not Enough to Justify a Team: In the U.K., football means soccer. Rugby is popular too. But American football simply doesn’t enjoy a high profile in the international culture; children don’t play it in schoolyards or aspire to play it in college. Friday night lights aren’t a thing in England (or many other places outside of the U.S. and Canada). It’s not likely that the presence of one pro football team would generate sufficient interest to change any of that. (And the attention being paid to the dangers of concussions is enough to have parents to shooing their children into other sports).

It Might Not be Considered a Desirable Assignment: And that could get embarrassing for the NFL if players make a lot of noise about not wanting to go there. (In fact, it might wind up being a rookie assignment, which could be good at creating buzz, but could also develop the reputation of “serving time” outside of the U.S.)

Adding Teams: Establishing a new team is a tremendous effort and an enormous investment. Moving an existing NFL team away from its city is a possibility but choosing the team to move is a decision fraught with controversy and political problems. Adding multiple teams – if the NFL really wants to pursue world domination – is going to be even more expensive and problematic.

But today’s NFL has advantages that NFL Europa never had. Fans are more connected, thanks to smartphones, live streams and social media. And that means that outside the U.S., more fans are aware of the concept of American football and are able to follow it more easily.

In fact, an article in Front Office Sports noted that while no U.S.-based league cracked the top 25 favorite sports leagues or tournaments in any European market surveyed by Altman Solon, European fans of U.S. leagues are on average younger than fans of those leagues in the U.S., indicating there could be growth in the future.

U.S. League Fans Are Most Interested In:
France — NBA, 16% of sports fans
Germany — NFL, 15%
Italy — NBA, 18%
Poland — NBA, 17%
U.K. — NFL, 10%

The concept of an NFL game played on international soil is a solid one. The concept of establishing a team (or more than one team) may be far less realistic. But it’s likely that talk on both these things will have to wait until live sports – with crowds – resume.

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