Is London calling? Lots of speculation about a British NFL team, but few answers
LONDON — The backstory behind Derek Nutley’s NFL fandom is as old as the faded Dan Marino jersey he wears.
As the middle-aged Brit scurried through a blocks-long tailgate scene, just an hour before the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens kicked off the 10th annual International Series on Sept. 24, he stopped to share his first memories of the American league.
“Before the Berlin Wall came down, you had … radio for the [U.S.] troops in Europe and I would always have an American football game on in the early evening,” said Nutley, who made the 60-mile trip from Newbury to London with his wife again the following Sunday to catch his team — the Dolphins — take on New Orleans at Wembley Stadium.
“So we used to tune into the radio and listen to that before live football was ever shown.”
How much have things changed? These days, the NFL says football is the fastest-growing sport in the United Kingdom.
Twenty-six of the 32 NFL teams have played a regular-season game in London since Miami lost to the New York Giants in the muddy opener of the International Series back in 2007.
NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood said growing the fan base overseas was the league’s initial goal when it began the International Series.
Now, the conversation has shifted to whether London would be able to sustain a franchise full time through expansion or relocation.
For fans like Nutley and fellow Briton Martin Lyddon, the NFL took a big step when the UK’s Channel 4 began showing week-old highlights in the 1980s.
But staying up to date was still a challenge. Nutley opted for the Armed Forces Radio, which had such a weak signal that he had to hang the radio outside his window for a better connection.
Even then, the game’s broadcast was interrupted by interference from other stations.
Meanwhile, Lyddon cringes as he describes the now-defunct teletext service he and his buddies once used to get NFL scores.
“We’d wake up on a Monday morning and we had a thing called Ceefax,” Lyddon said at an NFL fan event, dressed in Dolphins gear from head to toe, including a pair of orange and green flip flops barely suited for chilly September weather in London. “And the only way we could get the result was by putting it up on the screen.”
An announced 84,592 fans made it out to watch the Jaguars dominate the Ravens, an International Series record for attendance.
The league has sold out 20 of 21 games in London, including the four played this season.
The exception came in 2011, a year in which ticket sales were delayed because of an offseason lockout in the NFL. Still, 76,981 fans came out to the Bears-Buccaneers tilt in London.
Average attendance of the International Series games in 2017, two of which took place at Wembley and the other two at Twickenham Stadium, reached just below 80,000. Though only four games, that would have ranked second, behind only the Dallas Cowboys, for average team attendance in the States.
“I always look around the NFL now and some places don’t have that atmosphere and that fan support we saw at Wembley Stadium and we’ll see at Twickenham Stadium as well,” NFL Britain Sky Sports pundit Neil Reynolds said.
“I think that British fans deserve a franchise. When I look at empty seats in Los Angeles, or teams that are struggling to fill their stadium, I think, why don’t we give them a franchise? We do what so many teams aspire to do in the NFL, and that’s pack up a stadium. Geography shouldn’t be a barrier from that. We should have a team. I think the NFL will seriously look at putting a team in London.”
Unlike America, NFL TV ratings continue to soar in Great Britain. While Sky Sports and BBC, the two primary networks that air games, keep their ratings numbers private, Reynolds said in September viewership was up 60 percent to 70 percent on Sky from last season.
If it were up to him, the NFL would have a team in London next year.
Realistically, Reynolds expects a franchise will touch down in England within the next five years, coinciding with the next collective bargaining agreement between the owners and NFL Players Association. The team’s landing spot: a 61,000-seat stadium set to break ground next summer.
The NFL invested $12.8 million, or a little more than 1 percent of the cost, into building Tottenham Stadium, which will soon be home to the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur F.C. The stadium, which features NFL locker rooms and a retractable grass field with an artificial surface beneath for American football, will host at least two NFL games for the next 10 seasons.
All of the pieces seem to be in place.
But for every Odell Beckham Jr. and Tom Brady jersey floating around the streets and pubs of the United Kingdom, there’s a large contingent of those who shut down the notion of the NFL in Europe.
Two British brothers in their 20s were chastised by their buddies for attending the Ravens-Jaguars game. One of their friends asked them why they would even bother going to an NFL game.
“It’s not as mainstream as other sports, like soccer, cricket and rugby,” Matthew Jarvis said alongside his sibling, Jake.
Doug Allen, a former Buffalo Bills linebacker who spent 25 years with the NFLPA as an assistant executive director from 1982 to 2007, didn’t hesitate in saying it’s essential for the league to put a franchise overseas. While he applauds the league’s progress in Europe, he doesn’t think it’s close to sustaining a team abroad.
“I think it’s hard to sell that sport when you don’t have any players from other countries, when no one in those other countries play the sport at a young age, when you don’t have teams over there,” said Allen, now a Penn State professor specializing in labor employment relations.
“There’s just no investment on the part of those folks.”
The NFL needs to quickly get to the point where a team is financially viable, can afford travel expenses and work out scheduling with other teams, Allen added. He later indicated the league’s long-term success will hinge on gaining an international TV audience. Like the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL has a saturated market in the United States.
Aside from the scheduling and traveling logistics of placing an NFL team in London, the league also has to wait and see if the United Kingdom eventually splits from the European Union.
“It changes the dynamic,” said Kirkwood, the NFL UK managing director. “European Union labor laws make it very challenging if you were to put a franchise in Europe as it currently stands because our draft system and how we hire.”
He said Brexit could mean “a lot less red tape.” As of now, the United Kingdom is expected to leave the European Union in March 2019.
If the league can bypass these hurdles, the next step is to determine whether it expands or relocates overseas. The Jacksonville Jaguars have long been tabbed the favorites to make the move due to its struggles to grow in such a small Florida market — the Jaguars ranked 26th out of 32 teams in average home attendance in 2016, not including the one game played in London.
Jacksonville has also played a home game in London every season since 2013 and will continue doing so until 2020. Five years ago, team owner Shad Khan said his team had already embraced London as “our home away from home.”
Moments before the Jaguars took on the Ravens, it became clear that many in the United Kingdom have adopted the Jaguars as its team.
“Right before kickoff, when everybody started waving the Jaguars’ flags, it’s definitely something that you get chills running through the back of your spine,” Bortles said following the 44-7 win.” I’ll play here as many times as they want me to.”
But can the NFL thrive overseas for a full 16-game season?
For the thousands of fans who made the trip from all over to see the four International Series games this season, there were plenty of Brits unaware of the American spectacle taking place at Wembley. The NFL is barely on their radar.
But for others, like Dolphins fans Nutley and Lyddon, football has become a way of life.
“I do think that the expectation was that we’d see a team before 2020,” Nutley said. “And at the moment you’ve got a lot of support and I think you need to put one in before that support maybe dwindles.”