London is set to host four American Football games at Wembley and Twickenham Stadiums, for the first time since the National Football League introduced the NFL International Series in 2007. The playing of four games throughout September and October in the UK capital for the first time (half of a home schedule of regular-season games), is a milestone moment in the continuing rise in popularity of NFL football in the UK and beyond.
“We continue to be incredibly excited by the passion and love for the NFL shown by our millions of UK fans,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “London is an amazing city. We have had tremendous support from our fans, from Mayor Khan and other government leaders and business partners, and we are looking forward to taking the next step in the UK by playing four games in London next season.”
Commissioner Goodell also commented that the NFL has not heard from fans who are concerned about travelling to London for this season’s slate of International Series games despite two major terror attacks in England this year, and that ticket sales remain strong. “We’re not seeing that in our ticket sales,” Goodell said. “Obviously there could be fans who look at that and say, ‘That’s not something we want to do’, but we’re not seeing that. Our ticket sales will be stronger than ever.”
The success of the International Series has led the NFL to focus its global expansion aims on having a full franchise located in London. While no set timetable has been set, the league is working on a goal of establishing a franchise by around 2021. This would be most likely achieved through relocation of an existing franchise, with the Jacksonville Jaguars most often linked to this possibility due to their association with the International Series. Their American billionaire business tycoon owner Shahid Khan, who also owns Fulham Football Club, is however believed to be content with the current arrangement – with the Jaguars selling roughly 94% of tickets for their home games year on year. But the appetite for a franchise in London is here and still growing.
Since 2007, the NFL has achieved accelerated growth in the UK. Sunday viewership of NFL games has more than doubled, and the Super Bowl audience has increased more than 75 percent. The league also has developed new and stronger business partnerships and, according to internal research, has a UK fan base of more than 13 million, including close to four million avid fans. Participation in amateur American football in the UK has risen by approximately 15% per year since 2007.
The Baltimore Ravens, winners of the 2012 Super Bowl Championship, take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first of this year’s games at Wembley. It will be the Jags’ fifth appearance in the UK (they have a record of two wins and two defeats thus far). Neither team had a winning season last year, with Jacksonville mustering just three victories. This year’s matches feature none of the NFL’s most prestigious teams, reinforcing views among some UK based NFL fans that the organisers are using our appetite for the game to effectively dump some of the league’s less attractive fixtures.
The perennially under-achieving Miami Dolphins have one of the larger UK fan bases. The Dolphins are an obvious choice to send across the water, especially as their own home support in the Sunshine State support is notoriously fickle. Along with the Ravens, the Arizona Cardinals and the much-maligned Cleveland Browns will also be making their debut appearances in London. The Browns lost their first 14 games last season and were described by The Guardian as an “abomination of a football team” – they finished the year with just a solitary win to their name. But the Browns have developed something of a cult following in the UK.
When it comes to a matchday experience in the NFL, the Americans certainly do it differently. Tailgating is a uniquely American experience in which fans set up huge RVs (Recreational Vehicles) in designated areas around the stadium many hours before the game is due to kick off. Pounds of meat are griddled on the the BBQ as fans mingle with fellow and opposing supporters, while the pre-game banter flows as fast as the beer. It’s not exactly any more sophisticated than football supporters drinking beer and singing songs on the train to Carlisle away, but tailgate parties certainly have a distinct charm of their own.
And if you’re outraged by the exorbitant amounts Premier League footballers earn these days, you might want to look away now. Detroit Lions have just made quarterback Matthew Stafford the highest-paid player in NFL history, after he agreed terms on a five-year contract extension. Widespread reports suggest the deal is worth $27m (£20.9m) a season, taking him ahead of Derek Carr who penned a $25m-a-year deal (£19.3m) with Oakland Raiders earlier this summer.
But the interesting thing about the NFL is its melding of American capitalism and perhaps the finest example of sports socialism. NFL teams share close to 61 percent of total revenues the league generates, which makes a great deal of business sense. The NFL also shares ticket and merchandise revenues, with the exception of the Cowboys. Dallas keeps revenues generated from merchandise sales and does not receive any from the other 31 teams.
The Green Bay Packers revenue for the year ending March 2017 totalled $441.4 million (£341.5m). The Packers are required to announce their earnings as they are technically a public entity, although the franchise’s 360,760 shareholders hold stock that they paid for that has no value and cannot be traded. If London is to eventually have its own NFL franchise, it could be well-advised to model it on Green Bay. The legendary Packers waiting list is now up to 115,000 names, a reported 30-year wait! Here’s hoping UK-based NFL supporters won’t have such a mammoth delay for a London franchise they can call their own.