A pitched battle of London fields
It’s been an eventful year for the NFL’s bold London experiment of annually playing multiple regular-season games in the British capital. First, in late April, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan announced a bid of approximately $800 million to buy Wembley Stadium from the Football Association, soccer’s governing body in England; then, in August, the English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur confirmed reports that its heavily hyped new stadium in north London — which was to host 20 NFL games there in a 10-year period, starting this October — is behind schedule and will not be ready to open next month as planned. The Seahawks-Raiders game on Oct. 14 that had been scheduled for the new stadium will instead take place at Wembley.
Behind those major moves resides a tension between the league office and the Jaguars, who have been playing an annual regular-season game in London since 2013 and will continue to do so through at least 2020 under terms of an agreement reached in 2015. That tension stems from the fact that Khan never supported the NFL’s 10-year commitment to Tottenham, which had been agreed to in 2015, believing the NFL should not play in the home of an EPL club (Wembley hosts England’s national team, and although Hotspur is playing there while its new stadium is under construction, no EPL club regularly calls it home). The Jaguars, who have never objected to having more NFL games in London, will continue to play their games at Wembley Stadium no matter what happens with Tottenham’s new stadium. However, with Wembley perhaps on the verge of being controlled by an NFL owner, it begs the question of whether Tottenham is a necessary option for the league.
“We just don’t think an EPL stadium is where the NFL should play,” Hussain Naqi, the Jaguars’ senior vice president of international development, said in an interview earlier this summer at a coffee shop nearby the Jaguars’ offices in the heart of London. The Jaguars, he said, believe the EPL is too tribal and asking fans of non-Tottenham teams to go to a rival team’s grounds to see an NFL game is a step too far.
Naqi’s boss, Jaguars President Mark Lamping, said in a separate interview recently, “There is still a tremendous amount of work to do regarding fan development in the U.K. It’s critically important that the league doesn’t alienate — doesn’t take the risk of alienating — any portion of fans. Playing in a Premier League stadium risks that.”
The NFL, however, said it is firmly committed to Tottenham. Indeed, when asked if the Wembley acquisition could be a precursor to the Jaguars moving permanently across the pond, the NFL’s top international executive replied that should that happen the league would still play games at Tottenham.
“Why not?” said Mark Waller, NFL executive vice president of international. “Even if there is a team in London, I don’t think that means that other teams would not [play there]. And if you were going to play in London, and you had the option to play in a brand-new stadium that wasn’t owned by another NFL team, that might be a preferable option.
“Our job at the league is to serve the interests of all 32 owners, and so I don’t think Shad’s [proposed] acquisition of Wembley does anything negative at all to having the Tottenham option.”
Britain’s Great Football Boom
Number of unique viewers who watched some NFL programming on U.K. TV (mix of BBC and Sky) last year — up 43 percent vs. 2016
Social media engagements in the U.K. last season — up 32 percent vs. 2016
NFL video views on BBC’s website last season
Avid fans as determined by NFL research, double the figure in 2012
For now, there is no suggestion that Khan’s likely purchase of Wembley will lead to the Jaguars moving to London, an idea that has been speculated about for years given their annual presence in the city and their difficulty growing in the Jacksonville market. (Khan, however, in June broached the idea of having his team play two games a year in London.) And inherent in any Wembley purchase will be the scheduling requirements of English national soccer team matches and other events that would require use of the 11-year-old stadium, which seats roughly 84,000 for NFL games.
That’s a point Waller makes: Under terms of the sale of Wembley, Khan may be hamstrung in scheduling NFL games in his own stadium.
Waller also dismissed the notion that NFL fans of other EPL teams would stay away from Tottenham’s new stadium. In 2015, the NFL international committee raised this very issue, Waller said, and a study commissioned by the league found that NFL fans in London would not be bothered by attending a game in an EPL stadium. The committee then gave the go-ahead for the league to invest about $20 million into the Tottenham development, which will have an NFL field under the permanent pitch (the top field slides out for NFL games).
Told the Jaguars still held the position that playing in an EPL stadium is a mistake, Waller said only, “You always have to be respectful of other people’s sentiments even if you don’t agree with them.”
Waller’s conclusions have company. Nigel Phillips, president of the fan group Arsenal Supporters’ Trust — Arsenal is Tottenham’s main EPL rival — said, “I can’t see any Arsenal NFL fans boycotting the Spurs’ ground for matches.”
Steve Martin, CEO of London-based M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, agreed that it’s a non-issue, surmising instead that it is Khan’s ownership of Fulham, another EPL team, that is driving his opposition to having NFL teams at Tottenham. “Must be internal EPL politics,” he said.
Whatever the case, Tottenham officials are not talking about the stadium. Approached in May, a spokesman for the club declined to comment on the matter and the NFL’s arrangement there. Through the NFL, Tottenham the next month offered an interview but only if Wembley and the Jaguars were not topics of discussion. Sports Business Journal declined the offer.
Khan continues the process of seeking to buy Wembley, and although there are no hard key dates approaching, Lamping, who is negotiating for Khan, expressed confidence the deal would close.
Wherever the NFL plays in London, the appetite for the game is growing in that country. In 2018, the NFL will play three games at Wembley, marking the fifth straight year that the league has played at least that many games in England.
This year the NFL sold 50,000 “season tickets” — passes to all three games — which is up 50 percent from when the package was first offered two years ago. Of the first 21 games played in London, which date to 2007, all but one sold out, and that came in 2011 after the lockout delayed the selling window.
A player’s perspective: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville
The most commonly cited barriers to an NFL team moving to London are travel logistics or the U.K.’s burdensome taxes. But that’s not what Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars’ star running back, and his teammates think about first. Asked earlier this summer about the team potentially moving to London, Fournette replied, “Oooh, I don’t know because a lot of our families are over in the States. When we first heard [those rumors], some guys thought it was a good idea, some thought it might be a bad idea because a lot of us have kids.”
The Jaguars’ game in London last season was Fournette’s first visit to the British metropolis, but he said he had no time for touring. This year he plans to take his two young children and his mother with him when the Jaguars play the Eagles on Oct. 28. He says exposing players to a culture they might not otherwise see is a positive of a potential relocation. “It is a better opportunity for a lot of us guys who [are] from the States who don’t normally travel like that.” — D.K.
The Oct. 14 Seahawks-Raiders game that was scheduled for Tottenham and relocated to Wembley has not begun selling tickets, but an NFL U.K. spokesman said the league has every expectation it will quickly sell out. Individual tickets to the other two games — Titans vs. Chargers on Oct. 21 and Eagles vs. Jaguars on Oct. 28 — sold out the first day they were put on sale.
There are other signs of the league’s growth in the U.K. February’s Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl drew around 4 million viewers on the BBC and Sky Sports, the NFL said, which is especially impressive considering the game starts after 11 p.m. local time.
The league’s internal research finds that there are 14.4 million NFL fans in the United Kingdom, or about 22 percent of the total population, a significant jump from the 9.7 million fans the league identified 10 years ago.
However, there remains a concern that the NFL in London is more a curious piece of Americana to be gawked at rather than a spectacle to be embraced.
“It’s still the circus come to town,” said Carsten Thode, chief strategy officer of Synergy, a London-based sports marketing agency that is a division of Engine.
When Synergy talked to its European sponsors, he added, none inquire about doing business with the NFL.
Nevertheless, the NFL has managed to carve out a place in London sporting culture.
“London likes an event, and the NFL games have become must-see events,” said Tim Crow, former CEO of Synergy and now a London-based sports consultant. Crow even bestowed the ultimate compliment, saying he had no doubt London could support its own NFL team, and that a full-time team could start play with solid support right away.
All it would have to do is figure out where to play.