These Crazy European Fans Are Ready to Show the NFL They Love Football
It's been seven years since Mark Waller, the NFL's international chief, said the league could establish a permanent London franchise by 2022.
It sounds as barmy today as it did then. Yet the idea appears to gaining traction after Sunday's game between the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium, the second of three sold-out NFL games in London this year.
Last week, British Treasury Chief George Osborne told the Evening Standard the government will do anything it can do to make London the permanent home of an NFL team. This past weekend, the Daily Mail reported the NFL will stage five regular-season games at Wembley Stadium next season, which could further lay the groundwork for a team full time on European soil.
In June, Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he believes London — which has hosted at least one regular-season game as part of its International Series since 2007 — could, in fact, support more than one NFL team.
"The games in London ... are a tribute to the NFL, a tribute to the fans there, the quality of the game — and I think that it's proved conclusive that fans will come out when they see the real players playing games that are really meaningful, as opposed to NFL Europe," Blank told Sports Illustrated. He added that all three this season sold out immediately — to the tune of 240,000 tickets.
Many view the NFL's international ambitions as an overextension of their unopposed power at home, not to mention the significant logistical obstacles European expansion would invite: The eight-hour time difference between the West Coast and England, the potential competitive imbalance for teams in the same division as a London team, the uncomfortable idea of some players forfeiting a greater portion of their salaries due to U.K. taxes and more.
Yet if the apparent enthusiasm for Sunday's game at Wembley is any indication, the idea may not be as silly as people think.
Of course, there may be a novelty factor at play here. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said he believes the NFL's London games attract sellout crowds more out of curiosity than any kind of deep-seated passion.
"I think it's just a big event," Barwin told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I would be a fan of going there once, and it would be cool if the NFL caught on in London, but I don't see it happening. I've been to London a couple times, and the only people who I have ever really met over there that stayed up and watched American football were Americans that lived over there."
And while British fans have shown enthusiasm for the NFL, London's sports media has been less welcoming. After the Vikings beat the Steelers last year, SportsBusiness Daily noted there was no mention of the game on the cover of the Sunday Times sports section, nor on the websites of the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Guardian.
Yet according to the NFL, the league's plans for a London team are right on track.
"We're at the midway point of that 15-year journey," Waller told Reuters this week. "All of the indicators are that there's a huge level of support, there's a very good stadium, and now we're starting to realize there's a belief within British sport and British government that what we're trying to accomplish is not only attractive but doable."