In a city dominated by the Spurs, Arsenal, Fulham, Chelsea, and others, it seems odd that American football would ever find a fan base in London other than American ex-pats. The NFL attempted to host several pre-season games sponsored in other countries as the league’s way of promoting the sport abroad. The NFL also had its European league, which never really took off and ultimately fizzled in 2007, the same year that the “International Series” began.
Rodger Goddell, the NFL Commissioner, had wanted to expand the NFL into Europe since the league there ended, even going as far as to propose holding the Super Bowl in London, though that idea was quickly dismissed. Ultimately, the NFL decided on playing one game per year in London, giving birth to the International Series. The first game in 2007 featured the Miami Dolphins as the home team hosting the New York Giants in Wembley Stadium, the location of every following International Series match.
Since that time, the series has continued to grow and produce high ratings not only in America, but in the UK as well. In 2013, two games were played for the first time as the San Francisco 49ers playing the Jacksonville Jaguars and later the Minnesota Vikings facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the St. Louis Rams had once been announced to play one game per season in London, they were eventually replaced with the Jaguars, fueling rumours that the Jaguars could make a permanent move to London. 2014 saw the number of games in the International Series increase to three, a pattern likely to be maintained as the NFL announced another three games for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Television ratings are only increasing as the number of games played across the pond rises. The Independent reported in 2012 that since the beginning of the International Series, the NFL has enjoyed a 154 point ratings increase. While the first games were shown on Channel 4, Sky Sports now broadcasts them in the UK and reports that it is the seventh most popular program on a Sunday, tying broadcast darts matches (which are surprisingly quite popular). When tickets were announced in February, they eventually sold out 84,000 tickets per match to fill Wembley for all three games. In fact, the NFL has reported that out of the total attendance for the games, only 3% of ticket holders have been Americans.
London NFL fans also bring their own unique celebration of the sport to each match. It’s not unknown this season to see British supporters of the Detroit Lions sporting lion fancy dress costumes or Dallas supporters dressed as cows (for “cow” boys). Teams scarves, long popular with supporters in International Football, can also be seen held proudly by fans in the stadium. The NFL even packs Regent Street every year with a street festival that bring out supporters of all NFL teams, some of these fans admitting to a love of American football going back well before the International Series or NFL Europe.
Of course, with the sport growing ever popular with the city, the question still remains whether London would ever have a strong enough fan base to support its own NFL franchise. Surprisingly, the NFL seems in no rush. Perhaps owing to the failure of the European league, NFL bosses say they’re fine with the current thirty-two team model and would prefer a team move across the pond rather than create a new franchise. There also issues relating to travel for a London team to come to the states and vice-versa. For now, the NFL is content to grow the fan base in the UK until someone is ready to pull the trigger and make a move. The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the leading candidate for that possibility, with the team now as the regular hosts of one match per year and owner Shahid Khan also owning Fulham. Will they eventually become the London Jaguars, a name that could tie into the famous automobile manufacturer, or will a new franchise form in one of the world’s oldest cities? Only time will tell.