Since the expansion of the NFL International Series in 2012, American fans have often taken pity on their British and European counterparts. Despite the growth in the NFL’s popularity in the UK, the palpable uptick has taken place largely in spite of the product on display in Wembley and Twickenham. What might have passed for a novel and enjoyable experience five years ago is now treated with something close to contempt. The league rarely sends its “Blue Bloods” to the capital, and the games are increasingly lopsided.
For the NFL, this is rightly a source of concern — the British fan is, after all, more discriminating and knowledgeable than ever before, and collectively, they’re starting to notice. Take this year, for example: Both the Dolphins and Cardinals failed to score on their respective trips to London, while the Ravens could muster only a single touchdown. Travel and jet-lag could be thrown around as excuses for the poor quality of product, but try telling that to Drew Brees and Blake Bortles.
The truth, however, is that irrespective of the quality of the games, European fans ought to feel pleased that they even have games close-by. To offer some context, just consider the prospect of the (38 game) Premier League outsourcing three games to the States annually. You’ll agree, I’m sure, that such a notion is for the most part laughable. With that in mind, it’s clear that the current arrangment is a good, and perhaps even unbalanced, deal for fans on the eastern edge of the Atlantic. So long as cities like San Antonio, Toronto, San Diego, and St. Louis are deprived of pro-football, Britons should take a breath for before complaining. The longstanding hope, of course, is that the current offering of three games is transformed into eight — either through a simple expansion in number, or instead through a franchise relocation. Though many fear that the optimum time has passed for relocation (a myth), the prospect is far from off-the-table. At least for now.
“A home away from home”
Central to success and longevity of the International Series has been the Jacksonville Jaguars’ commitment to the experiment. After agreeing to play annually for three years in 2013, the Jags extended the deal in 2015, taking it up to 2020. The catalyst for the Jags’ creation of a “home away from home” was the franchise’s history of poor attendances, and an even poorer on-field product. (Prior to 2017, the Jags most recent season +.500 season came in 2007).
Although Shahid Khan, the team’s owner, does have close ties to the UK through his ownership of Fulham F.C., the Jags’ participation in the International Series is principally a bottom-line move. The relocation of one home game each season has decreased both the total circulation of game tickets and the total cost of season tickets, helping to strike a healthier balance between supply and demand. But even more significantly, Khan has been directly rewarded by the league for his willingness to participate in its overseas gambit. The Jaguars are now able to market their brand internationally and sell commercially inside the UK — rights that are ordinarily reserved for the league itself.
Notwithstanding, however, the many benefits accrued by the Jags, the London experiment has a much broader purpose, and asks a central probing question: Could the UK sustain its own NFL franchise, and provide the league with what could be its largest single media market? Or, stated more plainly, should the Jacksonville Jaguars become the London Jaguars?
If such a transformation is indeed a medium-term ambition for NFL executives, then the Jags recent turnaround ought to be of considerable consequence. On the one hand, should Jacksonville be able to sustain its emergence as a defensive power (and one that boasts an exceptional running game), then any incentive to relocate could well be diminished. Jacksonville’s attendance problem is undoubtedly linked to its on-field mediocrity, and although 2017 did not see an increase in attendance, the team has announced that 3000 extra tickets will be available when they host the Bills this Sunday. In the absence of an elite signal-caller, there’s no telling how sustainable the Jags’ elevated status really is, but if this is more than a flash-in-the-pan, then the league could find itself forced to look for an alternative guinea pig (Tampa Bay, anyone?).
Room for Growth
However, a deep playoff run coupled with sustained on-field success could have the opposite effect. One of the central arguments against a London franchise has been the familiar refrain that it’s simply “too late”; whether its the Packers, Patriots, Steelers, or, believe it or not, the Jets, British fans already have their own favoured teams. The counter to this is that the UK market is far from saturated. While the NFL might be the fifth or six most popular spectator sport in the UK, it’s still a niche product, and there are plenty of future-fans who are yet to be introduced to the game. The presence of a strong Jags team capable of making legitimate playoff runs could be a boon for a league intent on laying the groundwork for the creation of a British franchise. UK fans are, of course, more likely to emotionally invest in a team that is both capable of contending for honours and providing a quality product on its annual visits to the UK. So far, the Jags have not brought any real cachet with them, but Doug Marrone’s new-look outfit could change that.
Regardless of the future, the Jags’ revival and playoff-entry are net positives for all involved — not least of all the fans in the US who appreciate 9:30am football on a Sunday). It adds a leval of legitimacy to the International Series, and, thinking further ahead, increases the likelihood of the team enjoying widespread adoption in the UK — a positive for Khan and the league irrespective of whether the franchise decides to seek out a new permanent home. Either way, the unexpected resurgence of the Jacksonville Jaguars will have significant implications for UK-based fans and NFL executives. In terms of the global future of the league, and the success of the International Series, Jacksonville’s meeting with Buffalo on Sunday will be a game of the utmost imporance.