In 2007, the NFL played its first regular-season game in London. We all blinked, and 10 years later the league will stage four games there -- the equivalent of half of one regular-season home schedule -- as part of its five-game International Series schedule.
The NFL's steady push outside of U.S. borders, especially toward the United Kingdom, has spurred ongoing questions about where it will all lead. Does the league really want to establish a transatlantic franchise? Could it?
Indications increasingly point to a compromise answer that would create a "virtual franchise" via an eight-game regular-season slate, and it could happen sooner than you might realize. Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president for international, said in a conversation this week that the league's quick sellout of all four games in London is "a really meaningful signal" about the UK's interest and ability to support an eight-game schedule in short order.
Let's take stock of the issues involved.
Hold up. Why are you bringing this up now?
Jeez. The Jaguars sure seem to show up in a lot of these games.
You're right. Starting with the 2013 season, the Jaguars committed to playing one game per season in London, and that deal has been extended through 2020. The agreement guarantees the NFL a willing partner in this project, and UK fans don't seem to mind getting the team that has the league's second-worst winning percentage (.272) of this decade.
I know this isn't a Jaguars story, but one more question: Why would they give up a home game for this every year?
The biggest reason is that they make more money from a London "home" game than they do from games played in Jacksonville, one of the NFL's smallest and least-lucrative markets. Team president Mark Lamping has said that about 15 percent of the Jaguars' annual local revenue comes from the London game. (NFL teams do not share local revenue.)
Jaguars owner Shad Khan, meanwhile, has of another sporting interest in the area after purchasing soccer's Fulham FC.
Hopefully the NFL packs the rest of the London schedule with more competitive teams.
Eh. Only one 2016 playoff team is among the eight that will make the trip (the Miami Dolphins) this season. The list also includes the Cleveland Browns, the only team that has a worse winning percentage this decade than the Jaguars (.254). The Los Angeles Rams, who last made a playoff appearance in 2004, are also on the schedule.
Doesn't seem to matter to the Brits, huh?
Nope. They sold out the two games at Wembley and two at Twickenham Stadium in short order. That means more than 300,000 fans will see NFL games in person in London this season.
Is that 300,000 different people or 300,000 in total attendance?
The latter. What's interesting is that, according to Waller, about 40,000 people bought tickets to all four games. You know what that sounds like, don't you?
A fan base.
"If you think of that [number] in terms of season-ticket membership and season-ticket base," Waller said, "that's a really good indicator of the depth of fandom."
Interesting. Is there anything else that hints of the slow build toward a virtual franchise?
Yes. For the first time, the NFL is staging games in consecutive weeks. Wembley will host games in Weeks 3 and 4, while Twickenham is set for Weeks 7 and 8.
What did Waller say about that?
Here you go: "One of the things we've always felt is that if we were ever to have a team here at any point in the future, the schedule would have to work in terms of back-to-back games in the UK and back-to-back games in the States. It gives us a chance to test the back-to-back games from a playing perspective. It's not the same teams, but at least the fields and the stadium and everything else."
Three of the games, including this Sunday's, will kick off at 9:30 a.m. ET. Why do they keep doing that?
This is one instance when the NFL decided not to put the interests of the American television audience first. A 2:30 p.m. kickoff time in London is much more accessible to UK fans than 6 p.m., which corresponds to 1 p.m. ET.
"One of the things that's always important," Waller said, "is that you fit culturally with what works in the market that you're in. The reality in the UK is that Sunday afternoon is a sports time. Sunday night is not. There is no EPL [soccer] on Sunday night. There is no rugby. It's just not what people do. ... I don't want to belittle how inconvenient it is for U.S. fans. I totally understand that. But that's where the trade-off lies."
But how many of these fans are authentic UK sports fans and how many are displaced Americans?
The NFL estimates that about 5,000 fans at each game will have flown over from the United States. Another 5,000 travel from continental Europe, mostly Germany and Scandinavia. The rest hail from London or other points within a three-hour drive such as Liverpool, Newcastle and even Scotland. So the vast majority are people who live in the UK and presumably have for a while.
Anything else to share?
Just that the London series remains a growing, successful enterprise that isn't going away. In fact, it could get bigger pretty quickly. Positive returns from this "half season" of games could clear the path toward a "full" season. Said Waller: "And I don't think you have play four and then five and then six and then seven and then eight. I don't think it needs to be a linear progression."
Stay tuned on that one.