- The NFL London Games are fun, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
- According to fans, it’s too expensive, there’s not enough to do outside the grounds, and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is inaccessible.
- The experience will also continue to be flat until London has its own franchise.
The NFL has now been coming to London for 15 years, first arriving at Wembley Stadium in 2007.
This year’s edition featured three games, two of which were marked big milestones for the now annual visit. The second game saw the Green Pay Backers make its first ever trip to London, meaning all 32 of the NFL’s teams have now played in the English capital. And the final game saw a record 86,215 fans — the biggest ever for an NFL game in London — cram into Wembley to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars lose to the Denver Broncos.
On paper, such milestones suggest that not only are the NFL London Games a wildly successful annual event, but also that they are helping popularize the sport in the UK.
However, in reality, there is still a long way to go.
The Jacksonville Jaguars profess itself to be the most well-supported NFL team in England.
Owned by Sha hid Khan – who also owns the English Premier League team Fulham FC – the Jags have played in London a record nine times and have a UK fan group called the “Union Jax,” which boasts an impressive 80,000 members.
The team has also made substantial efforts to bring American football to the UK at grassroots level, running initiatives all over the nation, such as “JagTag” – its own take on touch rugby.
But on Sunday at Wembley, despite there being a record crowd in attendance, Jags fans were not the majority. Instead, there were just as many neutrals wearing the shirts of various other NFL teams.
It resulted in a flat atmosphere, which admittedly wasn’t helped by the low quality of play on the field.
Mike Flynn, a Jags fan at the game, said that unless London gets its own franchise, such atmospheres will continue to persist when the NFL visits the UK.
“There are lots of true fans in the UK, but they support 32 different teams, and there aren’t enough of them, hardcore fans, to fill a stadium of the teams that are playing,” he said.
“I think we have to accept that unless we get a European division then there will always be neutral fans in the stadium for any UK game.”
Nick Twine and Tom Austin, two other fans at the game, concurred.
“In my opinion, the only way to create a true fan base is to have a London franchise,” said Twine. “Until you get a team, which the fans actually care if they win or lose, you will not get the passion.”
Said Austin: “Until there’s one dominant franchise here, the international games will always attract a broad spectrum of fans.”
The London franchise
So, how likely is it that London will one day have its own franchise? According to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, very.
“There’s no question that London could support not just one franchise, I think two franchises,” Goodell said, speaking ahead of the London Games last month, according to ESPN. “I really believe that. That’s from a fan perspective, from a commercial standpoint and from a media standpoint. I think you [London] have all proven that.”
In 2015, however, the NFL said the same thing. In fact, it said it hoped London would have its own franchise by 2022.
“It’s a realistic time frame,” NFL Executive Vice President for International Mark Waller said at the time. “But there are still things we need to test for, so we have to be able to build a lot of things into the next few years. We don’t need to prove as much on the fan-demand side. We feel comfortable that, in a few years, we’ll be where we need to be there.”
Of course, that hasn’t materialized, nor have Waller’s comments about fan-demand proven to be exactly true.
None of this year’s three London games sold out, while according to Broadcast Now, 1.3 million people tuned in to watch the BBC’s coverage of Super Bowl LVI in February. That may sound like a lot, but by comparison, it’s a relative drop in the bucket. The UEFA Euro 2020 Final between England and Italy, for example, had 29.85 million viewers, while well over 100 million watched parts of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Participation numbers for American football in the UK are also on the decline. According to Our Sporting Life, there are around 28,600 people who participate in American football in the UK. Statista says that figure was 45,000 in 2017.
“If the NFL wants to one day have its own franchise in the UK, it needs to start promoting American football better for young people,” said Chris, a Jags and Manchester United fan.
“I don’t know of any local clubs around me, nor of any schools that play the sport. Whether that’s partly because the gear is too expensive, or it’s too dangerous, I don’t know, but generally, kids here just play football and rugby.”
A better London Games
One of the ways upon which the NFL can improve its popularity in the UK — and hence its chance of ever having a London franchise — is to improve the quality of the product already on offer.
At least, that’s according to fans, many of whom told Insider that they were disappointed with their experiences at the London Games this year.
Among the most common complaints were the inaccessibility of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which held the first two games; the cost of food, drinks, and merchandise; and the lack of activities outside the grounds.
“This is for Tottenham and Transport For London (TFL) really, but a massive investment in public transport is needed [at Tottenham],” said Twine. “Getting away from that ground with 60,000 others is hellish.”
Nick Williams, another fan, said: “I was under the impression that Olympic Way [the entrance to Wembley Stadium] would be rammed with merchandise and food stalls. Instead we got massive queues at the limited food stalls and a couple of dodgy stalls selling shockingly overpriced unofficial hats and scarves.”
Louise Stanley said the NFL should take a lead out of cricket’s book, more specifically The Hundred – a professional UK cricket tournament that was founded in 2021.
“The Hundred have got it right,” she said. “Activities, games, kids areas, giveaways, outside the stadium and plenty of food and drink options.
“Make it an event village around the stadium instead of just your standard match day hotdog and a pint. Official tailgates would be ace.”
To go full circle: The NFL London Games will continue to be a flat experience for fans until London has its own franchise, but if the NFL wants that to happen, it will need to do more than throw annual games and cross its fingers.