Make or break time for the NFL in the UK?

For the past 8 years, UK based fans of the NFL have enjoyed seeing regular season games on home turf courtesy of the NFL’s International Series.

17 different teams have graced Wembley Stadium since the Series’ inception and, with the Bills and Chiefs also set to make their London debuts in 2015, those franchises who haven’t played a game in London will be firmly in the minority.

But could 2015 be a make or break year for the future of the NFL in London?

There can be no doubt that the League’s British fan base has embraced the International Series right from the start. With every game played being a virtual sell-out (with the exception of the Bears and Buccaneers matchup in 2011), the average attendance of 82,839 rivals that for Wembley’s traditional sporting endeavour – football.

For the second year in a row, fans will have opportunity to see 3 regular season games in 2015, as the resident Jacksonville Jaguars (now in their third year of a four year commitment) will be joined by the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs to host the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, and Detroit Lions respectively.

For the first time however, all three games have been placed in an early kick-off time slot following experimentation from the League with last year’s game between Detroit and Atlanta, meaning American audiences will get three four-game weekends this season. With the viewing figures for last year’s experiment proving a hit with the broadcasters (FOX drew in almost double the audience it would get for its usual pre-game show that weekend), it’s something that is likely to become common-place.

So, with the fans and broadcasters both seemingly lapping up the London action, where’s the problem? In short, there isn’t one currently. However, I think what happens at the end of 2015, when the NFL are likely to announce details for 2017 and beyond, could shape the future of the Series.

Back in 2011, the NFL announced the International Series would continue through the 2016 season, and signed a deal with the Football Association for Wembley to host those games. A year later in 2012, the Jaguars committed to their current four-year deal to play one home game a season as part of the Series – which is also set to expire next year.

As such, there are a number of decisions to be made by League bosses.

The FA have already mooted the idea of sending the National football side around the country once again after their deal to host all matches at Wembley expires in 2017. With the repayments on the £750 million construction costs to finance, and NFL games bringing in an estimated revenue of £3 million a time, it’s easy to see why The FA have made bringing an NFL franchise to London, and more specifically Wembley Stadium, top of their agenda.

Also enjoying financial rewards as a result of the International Series are the Jacksonville Jaguars. Owner Shahid Khan announced recently that he expected the Jaguars to climb to 22nd in terms of projected revenues this year, that from dead last in the League when he bought the franchise in 2011, largely thanks to the annual home game at Wembley courtesy of bigger crowds and higher ticket prices compared to those at the Jaguars’ true home, EverBank Field.

Khan has openly stated he would like to see the Jags’ tenancy extended beyond 2016 but, with the League Owners’ decree for the playing of regular season games overseas set to expire next year, he’ll be hoping there are no significant objections to them continuing to cash in on the success in London.

It’s clear the NFL is still intent on driving it’s International agenda, too, with Mexico, Germany, Canada, and China all being slated as markets the League are looking to explore moving forwards. Indeed, but for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Wembley could have been hosting four games this year according to Mark Waller, Executive Vice-President of NFL International. I think we can be certain that will now happen in 2016 instead.

What isn’t so clear, however, is how they want to play out the period between the arrangements that come to an end in 2016, and their proposed goal of a London-based franchise by 2022.

I think The FA would be happy to commit to another long-term deal to host NFL games at Wembley and, in turn, secure much needed revenue that would reach in to the tens of millions, although recent surveys of fans on alternative stadiums and their views on them might suggest it’s perhaps not as clear cut as that. As such, we may see a shorter “extension” type arrangement announced or, even worse, a change of venue altogether from 2017 onwards.

In all honesty I can’t see that happening, but I think it would definitely have a detrimental effect on the Series were it to move away from Wembley. There isn’t another stadium capable of housing the current demand for the NFL and, whilst moving to a smaller stadium would probably guarantee sell out crowds every week if the frequency of games were to increase, the only viable alternative would seem to be Twickenham, which isn’t exactly downsizing of any significance, and somewhat harder to get to.

Similarly, the choice of teams could have a bearing on the future of games in London.

Do the League allow the Jaguars to sign up to another long spell as a regular “home” team, or do they use the new resolutions passed recently (which require teams to give up a home game should they announce a relocation, or win the bid to host a SuperBowl) to make changes every year?

If we’re moving toward more games each season (and I think the number will continue to grow steadily over the next few years) then a guaranteed commitment from one team, or even two or three, still gives the League chance to showcase a variety of teams, but also allows for some consistency. If the Jaguars fail to improve as the incumbent ‘regulars’, will the British public grow tired of watching them?

To that effect, what of the London-based franchise itself, penciled for 2022?

I think the NFL would have two options available to them to make that happen. Either relocate a current franchise to make them the London team, or coincide a wholly new London franchise with League expansion. Both options come with upsides and downsides as I see it.

Bringing an existing franchise over (and I think the Jaguars would be front runners were that to happen) would allow the current League structure to remain in place without the need to realign divisions as well as tapping in to an already established fan base here in the UK. The problem comes with getting the British fans as a whole to “adopt” that team.

You only have to look around Wembley on game day to see how wide an array of teams are supported and, as such, it is unlikely that the majority of fans would switch allegiance to the relocated franchise. Of course, when it’s three or four games a season, you go to see top flight American Football in your own back yard, but would you lose half of the season to go and watch another team – a rival even? I’m not sure the level of support would be maintained long-term were that the case.

So give the British public their own team instead, right?

Certainly it would allow for many supporters to get on board with a second team, and would make the London <insert your chosen name here> our team, but in itself would present a number of issues for the League. Expansion would be required to add a new team and, unless they really are intent on shoe horning in a London franchise, at least one other additional franchise would be needed at the same time – a League of 34 would be much easier to administer than one of 33!

They would also need to find a way to make the franchise at least competitive right from the start. With the franchise cost likely to be in the region of $1bn or more (the last franchise fee – for the Houston Texans in 2002 – was $700 million), will the League be able to find an owner willing to gamble that sort of outlay on a virgin franchise isolated in London with the risk of them tanking for the first decade? It took the Texans 6 seasons to hit .500, and a further two to record a winning season.

Neither option is the ideal scenario, and I think the League will need to consider which is the lesser of two evils when 2022 rolls around and plan accordingly in their next phase of decision making.

The International Series has been a long-term project for the NFL and, in reality, three sold out games in the 9th year and a clamour for more from the British public would suggest they have done everything right to this point, so there’s no need to reach for the panic button just yet.

With so many elements up in the air after 2016 however, I think the decisions the League are set to make in the immediate future could have long reaching impact on the Series, and the future of the NFL in London as a whole.

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