At a sold out Wembley Stadium in London on October 14, 84,922 screaming UK American Football fans witnessed the Seattle Seahawks put a 27-3 whooping on the Oakland Raiders in the first of three 2018 NFL London games.
The contest marked the 24th international game (22nd in London) since the American Football’s National Football League (NFL) started hosting matches outside of the US in 2007. These international matches have been at the forefront of the NFL’s push to expand the marketplace of a sport whose traditional fan base is isolated to the United States. The steady growth in popularity of American Football in the UK has increased speculative talk of a future London-based NFL franchise.
Despite a yearly drop in overall NFL viewers over the past three years, amidst players’ political protests and safety concerns, NFL UK has seen a steady rise in viewership over the same period. The first week of the 2017 season, the channel RedZone (which compiles live game feeds from around the NFL) saw its UK based viewer numbers double from the previous year. Even with this increase, British viewers are still only a minute fraction of the total audience. However, the future of the NFL may depend upon its ability to expand beyond its declining American audience.
At this year’s draft, NFL commissioner, Rodger Goodell tempered speculation of a London team, telling ESPN’s Trey Wingo that the NFL is “still a ways off” from a full-time franchise overseas. Despite the sport’s growing UK popularity, Goodell’s hesitation may stem from concerns of a remaining disconnect between potential UK fans and the US-based sport. A January 2018 YouGov survey of 1,600 British adults listed American Football only behind Golf as the “most boring sport.” While the poll’s sample size contains obvious limitations, the survey represents a key concern of the NFL’s front office; that the financial and logistical risks are too heavy for the potential rewards of entering a perceived lukewarm market. This concern could continue to delay the future of a Brit-based NFL team. Hope, though, may lie with individual owners who are willing to take the risk of relocating overseas.
Shahid Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars (as well as FC Fulham), is the leading candidate to make a franchise move. Since purchasing the Jaguars in 2012, the outspoken Khan has continually broken the mold of NFL team ownership; standing with his team in solidarity during the 2017 anthem protests and braving the spotlight for local promotional advertisements. Khan has actively pushed to expand the market of his franchise in recent years by striving for more overseas games. Earlier this October, however, Khan’s plans took a step back when he withdrew his £600 million bid to purchase Wembley stadium (the site for a majority of NFL international games) citing a lack of necessary votes from the Football Association’s council. The stadium purchase would have been the first step towards a semi-permanent residence in London for the Jaguars. This could have been a key trigger necessary to demonstrate the viability of a permanent London team.
Regardless, if the trend of a growing UK NFL fan base continues, it will be more a matter of when, rather than if, a team finds a permanent home in the UK.
The 2018 NFL London games wrapped up on the final Sunday of October with Khan’s Jacksonville Jaguars being narrowly defeated by the defending world champion Philadelphia Eagles 18-24. The game once again set a new attendance record for NFL London games with 85,870 fans showing up to witness the high-profile battle.
With attendance records continually being broken and the exponential growth of TV ratings annually, one thing is becoming quite clear—the UK is ready for an NFL team. If the league’s overly conservative business approach prevents it from attempting the move, it may come down to the efforts of individual owners, such as Khan, brave enough to tap into the spoils of the fresh, enthusiastic UK sports market.
For those interested in reading more about the NFL and getting into American Football, check out these links below:
ESPN Seahawks and Raiders game stats - http://www.espn.co.uk/nfl/game?gameId=401030706
Overall Viewership NFL -- Sports Illustrated -- https://www.si.com/tech-media/2018/01/03/nfl-ratings-decline-espn-fox-nbc-network-tv
NFL UK TV Ratings 2017 - https://forum.nfluk.com/showthread.php?t=112473
Interview with commissioner Rodger Goodell by ESPN “We’re still a ways off on that.” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swSS05YIg6U
YouGov survey - https://yougov.co.uk/news/2018/01/10/what-most-boring-sport/
Shahid Khan’s statement to withdraw bid -- https://twitter.com/WoodySTL/status/1052560355375927297/photo/1
ESPN Eagles v Jaguars game stats – http://www.espn.com.au/nfl/recap?gameId=401030699