When the idea was first put forward that the 'Home of Football' (or soccer) would be hosting a regular season NFL game, many found the idea nothing short of comical. How can you possibly bring that over complicated rugby over here and expect it to succeed?
Well eight years and 10 games later the UK is preparing itself for its eleventh regular season game and entertaining the self proclaimed 'America's Team' the Dallas Cowboys. According to Harris Interactive the Cowboys are currently the fourth most followed team in the United States, but for the previous six years they have topped the list. Not only that, this week NFLUK has announced the three games for next season which will be played at Wembley, including games on back-to-back Sundays for the first time. The Jacksonville Jaguars, owned by Shahid Khan who also owns London based soccer club Fulham FC, are currently midway through a deal which sees them play one regular season game at Wembley each season between 2013 and 2016. They were hammered by the San Francisco 49ers last year after quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran riot over them, and enter Sundays game with the Cowboys with a dismal 1-8 record.
With having an owner who also owns a British soccer team, the thinking is that the British public will adopt the Jags as their NFL team. The publicity drive that they have been undertaking here has been extensive. On the rare occasion you find a shop on the high street (though it is getting less rare) that stocks NFL merchandise, you're never far away from a Jacksonville cap of jersey. The Jags cheerleaders also do their part by appearing on just about every sport show we have in the week building up to the games. Earlier this year they even accompanied some players and took over Westfields Shopping Centre is West London for a special 12 hour event. Though according to the same Harris Interactive report that had the Cowboys as the USA's fourth most popular side, the Jags are rock bottom, so maybe this recruitment drive is something the franchise desperately requires. (For the record the Carolina Panthers rank 28th)
So the fact the games are still being organised suggests that they are still popular 'over the pond'. But just how popular?
Well this years three games all sold out with more than 225,000 tickets sold, and quite remarkably 35,000 of those are season tickets. The first game in 2007 saw an attendance of 81,176 which many believed it was because it was a novelty. Yet this number grew through the next two years and currently the games average around 82,500 per game which is a number that only the Cowboys can beat. This indicates how successful these cross Atlantic trips are proving to remain.
Earlier this year, I myself, donned my Cam Newton jersey and made the 250 mile journey south to witness the Miami Dolphins take on the Oakland Raiders. As I arrived and parked my car at a friends house he accompanied me to the train station. On the way he proceeded to tell me he attended the fan rally on Regent Street the day before, despite not being an NFL fan himself he just wanted to soak up the excitement and atmosphere. The streets were lined with fans all wearing their favourite teams jerseys as Neil Reynolds (NFL UK presenter) introduced some of the players to the adoring masses of fans. As my friend left the event he walked past an SUV from which a man he 'vaguely recognised' emerged. He described to me how a few people pointed this man out and before long hundreds of people swarmed around the car asking for autographs. After a brief description I deciphered that the man was none other than Dan Marino, who was of course in town to watch his beloved Dolphins.
UK based NFL podcast
As I scaled London searching for my hotel to drop my bag off before heading to the stadium I saw just about every jersey you could imagine including a JaMarcus Russell Raiders jersey and a Blaine Gabbert Jaguars jersey. Why people would still wish to wear those I have no idea but each to their own I suppose. I imagine the non sports fan Brit wondered what was going on as the city wide tailgate party unfolded before their eyes. Fans streamed onto any available train heading in the general direction of Wembley Stadium from stations all over the city. The mixture of colours upon arrival at Wembley Central station was mesmerising. Much different than any sporting occasion I had witnessed before, mostly due to the fact it was 32 sets of fans combining rather than the regular two.
Not too many years ago any talk of a London Franchise would have been nothing short of laughable. Now, however it appears to be a matter of when not if. The numbers still attending the NFL International Series game show that UK fans are harbouring a love for 'the other football' in their life. The franchise is a viable option but logistics and sustainability are the major stumbling blocks that need to be dealt with first.
Follow Dan Rawlinson @Danrawly