LONDON, UK — It will be almost Monday morning here when Super Bowl XLIX kicks off this weekend, but thousands of fans around the UK will still be watching in pubs and at home. And the NFL is watching them.
The United States National Football League is seriously considering a permanent UK team, after the unexpected success of its exhibition games in London’s Wembley Stadium. NFL officials keen on the plan have said a London franchise could start up as early as the 2022 season.
Spreading the regular season schedule across two countries and eight time zones would present logistical hurdles as formidable as the Houston Texans’ defensive line. Fans are split on the idea, and players haven’t even had a chance to raise their concerns.
But American football’s growing popularity in this sports-mad country isn’t lost on the NFL’s marketing juggernaut.
“There’s a lot of balls in the air, but I do believe there will be an NFL team in London,” said Will Gavin, host of the NFL-focused UK podcast Tuesday Morning Football. “It’s too obvious of an opportunity.”
There have been NFL exhibition games in London as far back as the 1980s, when slickly produced TV broadcasts of US “gridiron” contests earned a devoted British fan base raised on the Cowboys-49ers rivalry and Mike Ditka’s moustache.
There was even a team here — the London Monarchs — from the short-lived NFL Europe developmental league, which played off and on under different names between 1991 and 2007.
The Monarchs played their last game in 1998, years after satellite television crowded out the NFL with more popular sports. But a lot of those old fans held on, joined later by a new generation introduced to the sport via internet live streaming and Madden NFL video games.
The NFL’s International Series launched in 2007 with the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants at Wembley Stadium. It proved popular enough that the league expanded from one to two games in 2013, and three the following year.
Here’s the kickoff to that Dolphins-Giants game, which one sports writer said was “not pretty at all.”
Just like at home, the Wembley games are part sport and part spectacle, with cheerleaders, rock music and fireworks to entertain fans who don’t know a tackle from a touchdown.
“If you’re going to watch an American sport, you might as well do the tailgate. You might as well have the fireworks and the cheerleaders and all that,” said Alex Cassidy, a London-based writer for Gridiron Magazine with a forthcoming book on the London Monarchs. “You need that a bit. It’s alienating to go watch a three-hour game like that.”
Since 2007, American football has gone from the 18th most-watched sport on Britain’s Sky Sports channel to the sixth, according to the NFL's own research. Cameron McKay, owner of the online merchandise retailer UK American Sports Store, said his business has more than tripled in the last three years, with growth driven by NFL-related sales.
Even for a business as shrewdly managed as the NFL, the International Series’ success took everyone by surprise.
Turnouts at the Wembley games surpass average home attendance for all NFL teams but Dallas. (Then again, with 90,000 seats, the UK’s biggest stadium seats more than any of the NFL arenas.)
“We actually couldn't be more surprised by the tremendous demand for NFL football in London and the UK in general,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in July.
The games injected nearly $50 million to the London economy in 2013, according to an NFL-commissioned study from the consulting firm Deloitte published in October.
A permanent London team, the firm concluded, could bring the UK 102 million pounds (upwards of $155 million) each season.
For approximately 155 million reasons, the UK government thinks this is a fantastic idea.
“I've said to the NFL that anything the government can do to make this happen we will do, because I think it would be a huge boost to London,” Chancellor George Osborne said in October after meeting with NFL executives.
“We could have not just the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of NFL games but also ‘God Save the Queen,’” he continued. (Patriotic US fans horrified by this can just tell themselves it’s a bonus round of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”)
In October, the NFL’s UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood said a London expansion or relocation could get underway in as little as three years.
He backed away from that timetable in a conversation this week. But the NFL is stepping up its investment in the UK market, where it’s committed to games through 2016.
In October, owners agreed that teams must play a home game in London to be considered for a Super Bowl bid. The league announced on Wednesday a charitable partnership with six inner-city London schools, similar to those taken on by English soccer’s premier league teams.
It’s also trying to get American fans used to the idea of watching football that’s happening on someone else’s soil. All three London games this fall will kick off at 2:30 p.m. local time. The early start (6:30 a.m. on the US West Coast, 9:30 a.m. on the East) gives the games a competition-free window, and armchair quarterbacks a shot at the mythical “quadruple-header” of four televised games in a single day.
But fan interest is hardly the only factor in the deal. Moving one of the NFL’s 32 teams to the UK would pose daunting logistical issues.
There’s the travel, first of all (though proponents point to the University of Hawaii’s football program as a model for a team navigating distance). Taxes would be a headache.
Player reaction to the International Series so far has been mixed, said George Atallah, spokesman for the NFL Players Association, with some excited by the opportunity and others frustrated by what is essentially an overseas business trip.
Fifty-five percent of players so far have had to apply for a passport just to come on the trip. The fields lent by London pro soccer teams for practice have not always been up to standard, Atallah said, leaving some teams unable to practice before the game.
“Some NFL fans forget that this is a job for the players,” Atallah said. “This is their job, and if there’s anything that’s going to hinder their ability to do their job, that’s going to be something the players take very seriously.”
Those worries go both ways. Wembley is home to the English national soccer team. American football tears up a field — or pitch, as they say here — in a way that soccer doesn’t.
England manager Roy Hodgson has grumbled publicly about the condition of Wembley’s field after American football has had its way with it. When markings from the Nov. 9 Dallas Cowboys-Jacksonville Jaguars game were still faintly visible during an England-Slovenia soccer match six days later, some spectators on Twitter took it as a national insult.
The home stadium of a hypothetical team is still up for grabs, but Wembley seems the most likely contender. The England team would almost certainly be displaced at times.
The team went on a popular seven-year tour of the nation’s arenas from 2000 to 2007 when Wembley was being rebuilt. But would fans resent the team being booted by what’s still regarded as a foreign sport?
The NFL could also find itself a victim of its own success. The most committed fans here already have their favorite teams and may not be willing to switch allegiance to a UK franchise, especially one not even in their hometown.
McKay, the sports store owner, flew to London from his home in Belfast in November to watch the Cowboys beat the Jaguars 31-17. He loved it enough to buy a season ticket to the three games this fall. But there’s no way he’s rooting for anyone beside the team he’s supported for the last 30 years.
“The experience is good, but no — my local team would still be the Dallas Cowboys,” said McKay from Belfast, a mere 4,500 miles away from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to a 2007 Dolphins vs. 49ers game in London, when really it was the Dolphins against the New York Giants.