London again, huh? The Jaguars in London. To your average American NFL fan, this is about as exciting as a rice sandwich. Because of the 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff, a nonzero portion of the league's regular viewers won't even realize the Colts are playing the Jaguars on Sunday until the game is almost over. If there's any emotion spilled over this game, it'll be from people who didn't set their fantasy lineups in time.
And yet, the NFL is doing it again. And again. And again. Sunday's game is the first of three regular-season London games this season. They played three last year and three the year before. The Jaguars are going for the fourth year in a row and are committed to playing there once a year through 2020. The league has an agreement to play in Tottenham's new stadium every year once it opens in 2018.
If you're sick of the London games, too bad, because from the NFL's standpoint it's a rousing success and should only get bigger. The London series is a microcosm of the league itself. From a quality-of-the-product standpoint, it hasn't exactly been dazzling anybody the past few years. But it's thriving anyway.
Growing the game internationally is a vital part of the league's business plan. No one could possibly believe the game will continue to grow domestically the way it has over the past couple of decades, but if things do flatten out here and they grow overseas, then the league's business continues to churn and the owners keep making the money they've been making. Not only are there three games in London this year, but there's one in Mexico City, too. And one of the agenda items at the league meeting in March dealt with other potential venues, such as Germany, Brazil and China.
A casual NFL observer can look at the London series and conclude that it's gone stale. The average margin of victory in the nine games that have been played there the past four years is 18.5. Eight coaches have lost their jobs the year their teams went to London, including the loser of the Week 4 game there each of the past two years. (Look out, Gus Bradley and Chuck Pagano!)
The league measures its London success differently. Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president for international, listed three things the NFL looks at to determine how the London series is working:
Impact on the teams
"Do the teams feel they can go out there, play to the highest level, come back and compete and have a good season that isn't spoiled by playing internationally?" Waller said. "You can't get teams to go if other teams come back and say it was badly managed, not fair, doesn't work, things of that nature." So the league takes seriously the feedback it gets from teams about their experiences, and it works with teams to avoid surprises and inconvenience. The Jets got a lot of attention for bringing their own toilet paper last year, but they and the league had done their research, and they wanted to make their players as comfortable as possible.
Are they offering the U.K. fans the best possible product?
Sure, we who can choose among the likes of the Patriots, Steelers, Packers and Broncos every week scoff at the idea that Britain keeps getting the Jaguars foisted on them. First of all, by the time this year's London games are over, 14 NFL teams will have played there since the start of 2014. Second of all, British customers don't seem at all turned off by the Jaguars. Waller says all three games this season have sold out, and there are almost 40,000 tickets purchased by people who are buying all three games. "So, mini-season ticket holders, if you will," he said. The league polls fans who go to the games about their experience so it can address specific aspects and try to keep it fresh. Despite the less-than-stellar matchups, the average attendance in the 14 regular-season games that have been played in London has been 83,061.
Growth of audience
There is now a twice-weekly half-hour show on the BBC with the fabulously austere title "The NFL Show." It airs Saturday nights to preview the week ahead and on Tuesdays to review. The NFL estimates viewership at around a million, and Waller says the show has the youngest audience demographic of any BBC program. "So not only are you bringing in new audience for yourself, but you're also helping the BBC by bringing in new viewers."
Waller said that there are now 83 university teams and that amateur adult participation in American football is growing at 16 percent a year in the U.K.
The league doesn't want this to get stale, which is part of why there's a new venue in the mix this year. The Rams and the Giants will play their Week 7 game at Twickenham, a new venue for the NFL and a different fan experience because it's located in a residential area. The NFL is eager to see what effect that has on tailgating, parking and other game-day activities. Wembley Stadium, Waller said, can host only two or three games a year, so other venues must be explored and tried out. The new Tottenham Stadium factors into the long-term plans, but officials want to know where else they can have games if they want to continue to have more of them. Yes, there are those in the NFL offices and in the U.K. who are very interested in studying the viability of an NFL franchise based in London full time.
So roll your eyes if you like at perennial bottom-feeding Jacksonville being our international NFL standard-bearer. Chuckle when it's 11 a.m. ET on Sunday and one of the teams is up by 20 points. Remember: The people running this show love this, and that means you can expect to keep seeing it for a long, long time.