The headlines here in the States proclaim, "NFL franchise in London is foregone conclusion," and "Goodell wants a team in both L.A. and London." When I travel around the country and say I live near Jacksonville one of the first questions I'm asked is when the Jaguars are moving to London. American fans believe a jump across the pond, whether it's through relocation or expansion, is just around the corner, and why wouldn't they with the league expanding to three games a season in London next year?
The American sports media is obsessed with the NFL, as it should be. Even in Jacksonville, where the home team is now 0-8, the NFL still commanded the entire front page of the sports section on Monday.
The two games in London this year are averaging more fans in attendance than any team is averaging stateside in its home stadium, with the exception of the Cowboys. Of course, that's because none of the NFL stadiums accommodate more than 83,000 without selling standing-room only tickets. Nonetheless, impressive numbers in London, right? For some real perspective on the popularity of the NFL in London, let's look to the UK media.
Photo credit: Neil Barnes
A packed house at Wembley Stadium on Sunday night.
The Daily Mail gave the game less than 100 words in its "Sports" section on Monday. It shared the page with tennis and golf.
The Daily Mirror ran one of the longer pieces on the game alongside a much larger feature on the Australia vs. England rugby match. They did at least mention the Jaguars will be back at Wembley in each of the next three years.
Brent Martineau, sports director at CBS47/FOX30 in Jacksonville and a host on 1010XL sports radio, traveled to London to cover the Jaguars this past weekend and said he too was shocked by the lack of media coverage.
"The most striking observation of the week was the lack of press, especially newspaper coverage, this week," Martineau said. "There was a good contingent of international media covering daily events but even [Monday] the London Times has very little on the game.
"I think the lack of coverage may question the long term viability of a franchise over here. As a novelty it works, but we are a long way from seeing a full time team here in my opinion."
It's not just the winless Jaguars who aren't commanding premium coverage in the UK papers. The press coverage of last month's Vikings-Steelers tilt was just as lackluster as the Jaguars-49ers game. The Daily Mail ran roughly 75 words on the game, while the Metro ignored the game and ran a piece on the controversy surrounding the Redskins name.
Why hasn't the UK media bought into the NFL all the way? First, and probably most important, it's the middle of the Premier League season. Similar to how the NFL commands the press coverage here in the US, the Premier League commands the attention in the UK.
Second, the NFL is still a novelty in the UK. It's a fun event to attend, as international soccer friendlies here in the US are for us Americans.
Take the Evening Standard, for example. It didn't devote any space to the game in Monday's edition. It did, however, have one NFL-related piece in its Friday edition: "Dream date with Montana left me shaking with nerves." The columnist wrote about meeting his American football idol, Joe Montana. The columnist's love fest over Montana got the better part of a page, while the upcoming Jaguars-49ers game was relegated to a small sidebar.
Joe Montana hasn't played in the NFL in almost 20 years, but he was the storyline in London on Friday. Walter Payton has been dead for almost 14 years, yet he's the player a fan named his favorite when Jacksonville-based radio station 1010XL approached fans on the street in London to get thoughts on the upcoming game on Friday.
Montana and Payton are surely two of the greatest NFL players of all time, but what does it say about the NFL's presence in London when players who haven't played in decades are the story instead of those playing on the field on Sunday?
Both Montana's 49ers and Payton's Bears were two of the top teams in the NFL when the league made its foray into the UK almost 30 years ago. Payton played in London in 1986 when the Bears took on the Cowboys at Wembley, and Montana played in Wembley with the 49ers in 1988.
The momentum for American football carried into the early 1990s as NFL teams continued to play at Wembley through the 1993 season. An American football league also began -- the World League of American Football -- with the London Monarchs playing home games at Wembley. The Monarchs played before an average of over 40,000 fans in 1991 and 1992, beating Barcelona in the World Bowl title game in 1991.
However, after the league took a two-year hiatus in 1993 and 1994, the Monarchs found themselves playing at White Hart Lane, home of the Tottenham Hotspurs, in 1995 before an average of slightly more than 16,000 fans. By 1998, the then-renamed England Monarchs were gone. The league continued to flounder and was rebranded as NFL Europe in 1998. NFL Europe was essentially a developmental league for the NFL, and after years of instability it was disbanded in 2007.
So, developmental-league American football doesn't work in Europe. The fans there want to see the stars play, which is why the NFL revived the games in London in 2007, the same year it gave up on NFL Europe. The annual game in London each year from 2007 to 2012 drew over 81,000 fans, with the exception of the lockout-impacted 2011 game, which drew a little more than 78,000. This year was the debut of a two-game schedule, each of which had reported attendance of over 83,000.
Despite the lack of traditional print coverage, there has been enough momentum to increase online coverage of the league. Most of the major newspapers featured multiple online reports both before and after this weekend's game, even when they ignored it in the print edition. The Daily Mail has even built an NFL-dedicated section on its website.
The theory behind sending the Jaguars to London for an annual game over four years is that seeing the same team and players repeatedly will help build a fan base -- you know, for players who actually play in the NFL currently. I'm left wondering, however, if the Jaguars are the right team for the job, given not only their lackluster performance on the field, but also how differently you can imagine their roster will look in each of the next few years as they rebuild. Of course, we all love to see a phoenix rise from the ashes. Can the Jaguars be the comeback kid who inspires an NFL revolution in London? We shall see.