London: A Quarter of the Way to an NFL Franchise

Lee WalkerUK Managing EditorSeptember 29, 2013

Sep 29, 2013; London, UNITED KINGDOM; Fans arrive from the Wembley Park underground station for the NFL International Series game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The second-biggest paid attendance of the NFL season thus far was on hand at Wembley Stadium in London to watch two 0-3 teams do battle Sunday.

A crowd of 83,518 saw the Minnesota Vikings defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27 in the seventh International Series game in the UK.

More than 84,000 tickets have been sold for next month's match at the same venue between the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. It is the first time London has staged two games in a season, and it was reported this week that a third game is the next step.

The popularity of these matches is generating a big F word around these parts: FRANCHISE.

So, is London ready for an NFL franchise? Let’s debunk some myths.

Reports that Brits do not understand the game are lazy and glib. Sure, if you asked people who Adrian Peterson is, some would answer, "Isn't he the guys from Cheers?" If you take a small enough sample, though, you will find people who do not understand cricket or rugby either.

The NFL has a place in the sporting landscape in the UK where soccer is first, second and third and the rest are fighting for scraps. The League is not a novelty act, and according to a report in the Independent last year, the NFL has enjoyed a 154 per cent rise in TV viewing figures since 2006.

Five games are shown live each week across three networks, and David Kerr, Managing Director of British Eurosport—which acquired the rights to Monday Night Football this season—told me that he sees that trend continuing.

"The NFL is great television; it’s a premium right," he said. "There was a great surge in popularity when Channel 4 first start showing the sport, then it took a dip, but now it is definitely back on the rise."

Kerr refers to Channel 4, the first network to show the NFL back in 1982. The UK is a mature NFL audience, and the sport has found its place after the initial novelty of watching men smashing into each other at high speed diminished.

According to sports popularity figures for Sky Sports, cited in the Independent report, American football currently lies about seventh or eighth, alongside darts. (Don’t be startled—darts is popular.) More telling is that there were consistently higher ratings for NFL games than the Premier League of English rugby when they were shown on the same network last year, according to my Sky sources.

This maturity and the tribalism of European sports fans is likely to lead to a situation similar to a Yankees game at Marlins Park if a London franchise ever materialised, and certainly when the Jaguars begin their annual pilgrimage over the Atlantic this year, with supporters cheering for their native team rather than the hosts.

The plethora of different jerseys seen en route to and outside the stadium underlines that NFL games are very much a coming-out parade for fans of the sport.

Spot the jersey at a London Underground Station (six teams)
Spot the jersey at a London Underground Station (six teams)

However, this also works in London’s favor, as the most recent research distributed by the NFL in the UK cited that 50 per cent of UK NFL fans consider themselves fans of the League as much as a team.

Of course, any London franchise would pick up new fans and be a second team for the diehards who grew up on a diet of Marino, Rice and Riggins. It was that maturity—not a lack of popularity—that led to NFL Europe leaving London and preseason games ceasing, as fans knew they were getting an inferior product.

The youth is engaged in the NFL; the British Universities American Football League is the largest college league in Europe.

There is a fair splattering of purple, black and gold in Wembley, but NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood told me that the overwhelming fanbase is British: "We have fans coming from the U.S. and all over Europe, especially Scandinavia, but 85-90 per cent of the crowd is British."

Outside the stadium I spoke to Matti Cross, an exiled Brit now living in Denmark, who told me he would come to two matches a season if London had a franchise.

Other fans from all four corners of the UK I spoke to had a similar opinion. Naturally, fans would veer towards the more glamorous encounters if they had eight games to pick from.

However, the London metropolitan area is the largest in the European Union with a population of 13,614,409, according to Eurostat. With a sensible pricing policy (the NFL offered special package deals if you bought tickets for both this year’s games), you could envisage half of Wembley’s 86,000 seats being taken by season ticketholders if they were priced around £250/$400.

The rest would be filled with traveling fans from the U.S. plus farther reaches of the UK and Western Europe. London can be reached from a glut of European cities in under two hours' flight time and for a return of around $150.

Pivotally, when the next nearest team is more than 2,500 miles away, there is a natural sell for the sport.

Get to a stage when the NFL can sell out a game per month in London, and then the arguments over logistics can begin.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.