The first regular season NFL game played outside of North America took place at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2007 between the Dolphins and Giants. As part of the league’s “International Series”, London has hosted games each season since, increasing to 2 games in 2013, and 3 for the 2014-2016 seasons. In 2017, the ante has been upped again to 4 games, a pair at Wembley and another at Twickenham Stadium.
In case you’ve been sleeping through the 9:00-9:30 AM EST broadcasts or just haven’t noticed just how consistently awful the caliber of teams and level of competition have been, here are some high… but mostly lowlights and a look into the NFL’s venture into the export business.
Numbers & Records
As already by far the most popular league in American sports, it makes sense that the NFL would look towards a largely untapped international market to grow its fan base and open up new revenue streams. London is a pretty obvious place to start given its geographic and cultural proximity. The English Premiere League has been tremendously successful exporting its product to American fans and the NFL is attempting to duplicate this.
But if the EPL sent the equivalent of what the NFL is sending to London – we’d be dumping soccer players in the Boston Harbor. Even if they’re playing exhibition games, they send their best teams and stars. The NFL’s approach, starting with the 2007 Giants-Dolphins match-up has gone something like this –
Hey limeys, want to watch some American football? Ever heard of Cleo Lemon??? Yea we haven’t either but he’s the QB (guy that throws the ball) for the 0-7 Dolphins. You may have heard of Eli Manning, or at least his brother, but he doesn’t do well with jet lag so ignore his 8 for 22, 59 yard game and focus on Cleo or I guess the defense? You guys like low scoring sports anyway right? You should be cool with 13-10. We’ll see you next year.
Even though the 2007 Dolphins-Giants game was one of the most unwatchable games of the season, it was the only game in town for expats and Brits with a potential interest in football. Much like Thursday Night Football in the US, the NFL really doesn’t have to worry about the quality of play. It’s the only game in town so people are going to watch. The NFL is the only single guy in town so it gets to essentially show up for a first date in sweatpants, talk about all the chicks it banded in college, throw a dip in, and ask the waitress what she’s doing later – all while knowing none of it is going to matter. It’s getting a second date if it wants because it has no competition.
Who knows what levels of popularity overseas the NFL could reach if the league tried earnestly to present the best version of its product? If their ultimate plan is to bring an expansion team to London, wouldn’t it behoove them to bring stars and marquee match ups to London? Football has been successful in London so far because games are infrequent enough that they sell out solely on novelty. But are fans in England clamoring for a team? Has a Tom Brady game winning drive in a 28-27 game left 80,000 desperately wanting more? Or are they content just to dawn NFL jerseys, drink excessively outside stadiums, and enjoy the event as a whole whether or not the game is compelling?
Maybe the Brits don’t care that much about the games themselves. They’re well aware of the trash we’re sending them and just accept it. Maybe they’re cool as long as they can send Ricky Gervais over in t-shirt and scarf to host an award show and talk shit about America every so often. They fill up stadiums that hold 10-15,000 more fans than a typical NFL game and we pretend Ricky Gervais is funny during the Emmy’s. Ultimately, season attendance goes up because 4 or 5 times in a calendar year, British fans will fill up Wembley. It’s good PR and puts money in owners’ pockets. From their perspective, there’s no downside.
As usual, lost or at least largely ignored in all of this, is the impact on players. Rams Running Back, Todd Gurley, among several others, has spoken out about the added physical toll that London games take on players. As if the NFL season isn’t grueling enough, players are taken completely out of their weekly routines, are jet lagged, and for a West Coast team like the Rams, it’s almost impossible to adjust to playing at what would be 6:30 AM local time. Additionally, the playing fields designed for soccer and rugby are much harder surfaces making players more susceptible to concussions and other injuries stemming from hard falls.
So aside from making money for owners and boosting regular season attendance numbers, what are the benefits of playing in London?
- Most of the 80,000+ fans in attendance don’t care if players protest during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
- Most of the 80,000+ fans in attendance don’t know enough to hate Roger Goodell.
- Smokin Jay Cutler gets to use the word “fag” without inflicting the wrath of the PC police.
- It helps weed out horrible coaches a little faster – 6 coaches who participated in the London game have not survived the season so far: Josh McDaniels (Broncos, 2010), Mike Singletary (49ers, 2010), Dennis Allen (Raiders, 2014), Joe Philbin (Dolphins, 2015), Jeff Fisher (Rams, 2016), Gus Bradley (Jaguars, 2016)
- It gives the Jaguars an advantage – they’ve played 5 games in London (2 more than any other team), have won 3 straight and in those 3 games Blake Bortles has thrown 8 TD’s and only 1 interception. Just aces Blake. A cracking good showing on the pitch to get the result for your side. Cheers mate.
- It’s the one time Jaguars is correctly pronounced “Jag-you-are” outside of commercials pumping $60,000 sports sedans that play every third commercial between Capital One and Liberty Mutual.
- The Panthers are one of four teams that has yet to play in London, but Cam’s collection of hats and outfits are clearly suited to appeal to European fashionistas. North Carolina doesn’t appreciate his range of looks from Turn of the Century Carnival Announcer to Backup Dancing Chimney Sweeper from Mary Poppins to Flamboyant Silent Film Star. Europe Might.
- Lastly, it gives us the chance to see 4 or more pasty white soccer fans wearing 4 different NFL jerseys, none of which represents a team that is actually playing (or something even dumber looking).
As much as players hate the games and as watered down a version of the game as it is, there’s no incentive for the league and owners to dial back or stop playing games in London. As long as the Player’s Association continues to collectively bargain with so many other issues ahead of London and with so little bargaining power, don’t expect to see the NFL dial back the number of games played overseas. If anything, expect to see the opposite.