NFL Extends London Stay with Three Wembley Games in 2015/16 season

Last month the New England Patriots held on the defeat the Seattle Seahawks in front of millions of eyes around the world in Super Bowl XLIX.

The bean-counters at NFL headquarters in New York were be just as interested in the performance of a third franchise: the London Public.

What started as a one-off experiment eight years ago when the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley, has grown to the extent that England’s most famous stadium now holds three games annually in front of over 80,000 spectators; the Jacksonville Jaguars have committed to a long-term residency arrangement, and the UK government has thrown its support behind the establishment of a London NFL team.

It is estimated that such a team will be included in the American competition within 10 years.

While the NFL is not rushing into anything after the failure of its previous attempt to crack the European market, the steady success of its current intrusion has ticked every box.

The Super Bowl is major litmus test that is watched by the decision makers back in the US.

NFL International Series Miami Dolphins @ Oakland Raiders Wembley Stadium London UKFor the first time, UK Pay-TV network Sky Sports gave over an entire channel to the game, providing 24-hour coverage for seven days. Significantly, while it will include replays of regular season matches, previous Super Bowls and comment from US experts, a major component will aimed specifically at the UK market, and headed-up by the English host of Sky’s weekly NFL coverage Neil Reynolds.

Reynolds, a journalist who has covered the game since 1991, believes there is no doubt that a team is coming to London.

“For the record I do maintain that we will have our own NFL franchise in London within the next six or seven years,” he wrote in a recent column.

It is hard to disagree. The establishment of a London team now seems a matter of when, rather that if, after the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave the prospect the governmental thumbs-up prior to this season’s Atlanta Falcons-Detroit Lions game at Wembley.

In the week of the game Osborne’s revelation that he had entered into talks with the NFL and told them that, “anything the government can do to make this happen we will do,” made front page news.

A major talking point is whether the London team will be a new entity or relocation of an existing franchise, the logical candidate being the Jaguars. The team, owned by billionaire businessman Shahid Khan — who also owns London football club Fulham — committed in 2013 to playing one game a year at Wembley until 2016.

Two games in, the arrangement is paying dividends. Revenue from a Wembley match is double what the club receives from a home game in Jacksonville, and membership of its UK fan club, Union Jax, has grown from 20,000 to 30,000 in the past year.

Shalid KhanBut in an interview before his team’s Wembley showdown with the Dallas Cowboys in November, Khan denied the Jaguars were eyeing a permanent move.

“Put two and two together, you’re welcome,” the Pakistan-born US-educated car-parts manufacturer told reporters. “Speculate away, but we have no plans to move at this time. The Jaguars are the smallest NFL club and we needed more fans. Going overseas has been a win-win. There is demand for NFL football here and we can help with that.”

With Jacksonville seemingly not contemplating relocation to London other candidates being touted are the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams.

NFL UK managing director, Englishman Alistair Kirkwood, does not know whether the London franchise will be a relocated team or an entirely new entity. What’s more, he doesn’t care.

“That is a decision that is up to the NFL,” he said, “Our job here is to lay the groundwork and build the product to the point where the NFL believes the time is right.”

It is a job that Kirkwood and his staff of 22 is doing well, thanks in no small part to the fact that they saw first-hand how not to do it.

A survivor of the NFL’s last attempt to break into Europe, variously known the World League of American Football, NFL Europe and finally NFL Europa, Kirkwood realized the folly of trying to educate Europeans on the virtues of American football through a second tier version of the game.

WLAFlogoThe league, which operated on and off from 1991 to 2007 featured clubs from London, Frankfurt and Barcelona as well as the US and Canada but could gain little following for what an LA Times columnist described as “roster-cut leftovers”.

“What the NFL tried to do was build interest in the game through the grassroots, from the ground up,” Kirkwood said. “What we are now doing is building it from the top down. Giving the fans access to the very best product available.”

And while the UK fans have wholeheartedly adopted the concept — 89 per-cent of crowds at the Wembley games live within two hours travel time of Wembley, with six per-cent coming from Europe and five per-cent from the US — a major key to its long-term success is that the clubs have bought in.

“At first there were doubts that the clubs would want to travel to London to play”, Kirkwood said. “The NFL season is very short, only 16 games, so every game counts. Clubs were worried that any disruption to the season could only be a negative.

“We got lucky. The first game featured the New York Giants, and they went on to win the Super Bowl that year. That changed the way the clubs looked at it. They now see it as a good bonding experience for the players.

“Before that Super Bowl one of the New York players was asked how he was going to cope with playing in the game because he had never played in a Super Bowl before.

“He said, ‘I’ll be fine because I played in the game in London so I’m fully prepared to play in a strange environment surrounded by journalists asking dumb questions’.

“After that, we were up and running.”


John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.