(LONDON ) The 85,870 fans who packed London’s Wembley Stadium last week was the largest crowd to ever see an NFL game in England.
In the stands the thousands of fans discussed each yard gained and each point earned as the Jaguars fell to the Philadelphia Eagles 24-18.
Announcers put on fake British accents and columnists discussed the logistics of moving a team to London. In the stadium’s luxury boxes NFL executives saw the large crowd as further proof that London could one day support an NFL team.
“In reality it probably was a bigger deal moving the [Brooklyn] Dodgers and [New York] Giants to the West Coast in the 1950s, the moving a team here,” says a consultant working with the NFL in the UK, “these days with luxury jetliners you can get decent sleep on the flight over.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the mostly likely team to move to Wembley. Their owner Shad Khan has been adamant that he has no plans to move the team and withdrew a bid to purchase Wembley on October 17th.
“That is just a negotiating strategy,” said Ahmed Sheikh, a local Jaguars fan attending the game “Khan already owns a British soccer club, so it makes sense to buy Wembley and move both teams there.”
Shiekh has been following the Jaguars since 2013 when they first started an annual home game in London. The team now says it earns 11% of its revenue from the UK market from ticket and merchandise sales.
“I think long-term it’s going to be bad for the NFL to put a team over here permanently,” said Ronald Jackson who travelled with his wife from Philadelphia to take in the game,” This is America’s game and I don’t think they game has deep enough roots here to support a team.”
For Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL International Series, which began in 2005,is key to a broader strategy – or hope, at least – to make this American game a global phenomenon. .
“We don’t describe ourselves as an American sport,” Goodell told the Times of London in an interview published last month.
It is ironic that Goodell may also the International Series as a welcome distraction from controversies at home involving American patriotism.
The league has been roiled by the decision of some players – beginning with former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick – to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Some blame the league’s declining TV ratings on the controversy.
Goodell has tried to find a middle ground, announcing fines for players who refuse to stand but also allowing players to remain in the locker room if they do not wish to stand.
President Donald Trump has been especially critical of the league’s take.
“NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison. Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back?” President Trump tweeted last month.
However, President Trump may have inadvertently thrown the NFL a life-line with his new North American Free Trade agreement. Goodell praised Trump’s new trade deal which will allow the NFL to collect more money from Super Bowl broadcasts in Canada.
The NFL is also dealing with growing concerns about concussions suffered during play, steroid use, and off the field violence by players, including the murder conviction of New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez and the and a video-tape showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée in a hotel elevator.
The Jaguars and the NFL have also spent money developing youth leagues in London. A simplified version of American football called “Jagtag” is promoted in schools. One player on the Philadelphia Eagles was born in London. A competitive adult league exists in the United Kingdom and is growing in popularity.
The NFL originally scheduled an NFL game to take place in China this year between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco Giants which was cancelled in favor of London game. An NFL game was also played this year in Mexico City for the third consecutive year but, placing a team in Mexico makes much less economic sense. Next year the NFL will play four games in London and one in Mexico.
For NFL fans hoping to see a franchise in London an unlikely example proves its possible. The Toronto Wolfpack founded in 2016 has been playing a transatlantic schedule in Britain’s professional rugby leagues for the past three seasons.
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