All Eyes on a London Franchise

It’s Super Bowl week, and once again the Patriots are in the mix, this time facing the Eagles – the regular season’s best team. The recent Divisional round of matches served up the very best of what NFL has to offer as a sport: the four matches featured an heroic goal-line stop in the last minute, a Super Bowl dynasty rolling on, an underdog team famed for their defence coming out on top of an 87-point shootout, and one of the most dramatic endings ever seen.Before the current one is finished, attention in London already turns to the 2018 season, with the latest round of International Series fixtures recently unveiled.

The 2018 Series will see six teams travel to London, playing matches at Wembley and, for the first time, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. This will bring the total number of teams to have played in London to 29, with only the Packers, Panthers and Texans yet to play here. With 21 matches played to date, an average stadium attendance of over 82,000 and a host of international partners, the future of the Series seems in rude health.

At a time when the league is facing tests from injured superstars (in particular, head injuries and concussions), player protests and an aggrieved President, the NFL continues to be extremely popular in the UK: 20 of the 21 matches hosted in London have been sell-outs and the NFL claims to have three million ‘avid’ (once-a-week) fans in the UK. Broadcast and highlights packages across Sky Sports and BBC are becoming more sophisticated in their delivery, and the relaunch of the NFL Game Pass has shown willingness from the NFL to innovate their broadcast offering.

Since the first International Series match in 2007, a solid UK fanbase including ‘big eventers’ and ‘sports tourists’ has been built, but educating the wider UK public is a crucial step in the NFL’s expansion plans. As the novelty of regular season matches and the opportunity to see new teams diminishes, so the appetite for meaningful matches in London and the UK grows. Although the 2017 fixtures did not look thrilling on paper (ending up rather one-sided affairs), there were over 40,000 ‘season ticket holders’ who bought tickets to each match.

The success of visiting sides may help the prospects of attracting them to participate in the International Series, with each match winner in 2017 reaching the Playoffs; however, there is still a reluctance from teams to surrender a precious home game (teams currently have eight home fixtures per season). The Jaguars, Rams and Raiders have given up home matches in 11 of the 23 International Series matches and it is unlikely that the Rams or Raiders will be keen to surrender a home match once their Inglewood and Las Vegas stadiums open in 2020.

If rumours are to be believed, the NFL is in planning mode for a London-based franchise, with both the NFL and the UK Government seemingly receptive to a full-time team. As the popularity of some teams in the USA wanes (Browns) and stadium leases expire (Panthers), the possibility becomes ever more plausible. The Jaguars appear to be the most likely franchise to relocate, as their owner Shahid Khan is based in London and the team have committed to hosting a match at Wembley Stadium until 2020. That said, their stadium lease at EverBank Field runs through to 2030, so it is difficult to see them relocating completely just yet.

There are obvious logistical concerns about a London-based franchise, including the issue of travel, UK tax laws and employment laws impacting the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (a labour agreement between the players’ association (NFLPA) and the NFL). As it stands, it is unclear how the NFLPA would feel about a London franchise, and there is a chance that when the new CBA is negotiated, a London franchise could be vetoed by the players. Mark Waller, NFL VP of International, believes that an East Coast base could alleviate a lot of the player concerns, and that any issues can be ironed out before the next CBA is negotiated in 2021.

As a casual follower of the sport, I’d welcome a London franchise with open arms and would look forward to a team that NFL fans in the UK can claim as their own. The UK fanbase will surely only increase with the opportunity to actively support a team, rather than following the sport, which would open up further commercial opportunities. For obvious reasons, a London franchise would need to be competitive, which is a very difficult thing to achieve when starting from scratch, and there will be concern that a permanent franchise could lose its novelty quickly if results don’t go their way.

The UK talent pipeline is crucial for securing interest amongst younger demographics, and the presence of Jay Ajayi and Jermaine Eluemunor at the Eagles and Ravens respectively should strengthen interest in the sport domestically. Since 2008, the University league (BUAFL) has expanded to 83 teams and doubled the number of players, buoyed by an official association with the NFL, whilst amateur participation levels have grown by 15% each year for the past decade. The increasing opportunities for overseas players, such as the International Player Pathway, may contribute to UK-based athletes converting to American Football, as evidenced by the likes of Alex Gray – a former England 7s player, who is now on the Falcons’ roster.

It is worth remembering that the participation increase is taking place from a very small base and not everyone in the UK is enamoured by the glitz and the glamour of the NFL. YouGov recently revealed that 59% of those surveyed found the sport quite or very boring and in an already busy market place, watching NFL might be a relatively disposable leisure activity. The relocation of NFL teams into the Los Angeles market has been far from straightforward and this is a city where American Football is ubiquitous. The same can’t be said of London.