American Football: Jaguars need to feel at home in London
If city takes team to their hearts it could well lead to a capital franchise
Wembley, some time in the next decade: the announcement that British NFL fans have been waiting for since regular-season games in London began in 2007 rings around the sold-out stadium: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the field [pause for dramatic effect] your... London Jaguars!"
Some people see that as the logical outcome of the experiment that begins tonight, when the Jacksonville Jaguars play the first of four annual games in London, against the San Francisco 49ers. Full houses will persuade Shahid Khan, also the owner of Fulham, to increase the number of Jaguars visits after 2016 and eventually base both his teams in the same city, thereby establishing the first NFL franchise in the UK.
Of course, in a different, worst-case, scenario, the unglamorous Jaguars could struggle to capture the imagination or loyalty of British NFL fans unless they are hosting big-name opponents such as the 49ers, or the Dallas Cowboys, their visitors in next year's game. A fall-off in attendances for the third and fourth games of their residency might force a rethink about the future of games in London, let alone a team permanently based here.
While NFL games in London have quickly come to feel like a permanent part of the calendar, the Jacksonville move is only the next stage of what is still an experiment. And even though the Jaguars could not sell out a recent home game despite giving away free beer, they are committed to their existing stadium until 2027.
Yet Khan is already talking about playing Jaguars games at Craven Cottage, which cannot happen until the NFL contract with Wembley runs out in 2016, so nothing is ruled out, depending on each phase of the experiment continuing to be a success. This season a second game was added to the International Series – both sold out promptly – and there will be three in 2014.
And the NFL is prepared to play the long game. On Thursday, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, told a Sports Journalists Association lunch: "I don't know what the timetable is," and if he doesn't, then nobody does. He added: "We're trying to globalise our game but we're not trying to tackle the globe [all] at once. Our game isn't played on a global basis, unlike basketball, or soccer. That's why we have to do things differently.
"But we want to create success here. It depends on fan support continuing to grow. [If] at some point in time it will become obvious a team here could be successful then we have to figure out other issues. Like which team, or teams."
Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of NFLUK, confirms that, despite the success of their Wembley games, the League are still feeling their way forward. "Back in 2007 I would throw around ideas such as, 'We could even have a London franchise one day', and people would think, 'You're stretching this, don't run before you can walk'," he said. "Now people look at the trajectory, the things we've done, and ask, 'Does it mean we're going to have a London franchise?' And I'm doing the opposite, saying, 'I don't know'.
"People who don't know the NFL don't appreciate what putting a franchise in a city really means. Average attendance is 66,000-67,000. And you should only put a team where you think it is going to work, to be absolutely viable. Otherwise you run the risk of diluting the success that they've enjoyed..
"But London is a massive place, and the more teams, owners and officials know the whole thing works and get comfortable with this, and keep seeing fans coming out, the more likely we'll get closer to it.
"The timescale could be sooner than you think, or longer than you'd predict. I never take anything for granted. But on the other hand, here we are staging two games and doing three next year. The logic of the Jaguars as a returning team is to see whether new fans will then take to that team. It's a very interesting journey and we're less than halfway through it."
Wembley: Tale of the tape
This season Bottom of NFC South. Won 0, lost 7.
Points Scored: 76. Conceded: 222
Last season Bottom of AFC South. Won 2, lost 14.
Honours (since formation in 1995) 2 division titles.
Hall of Fame players None.
Key player Maurice Jones-Drew (running back) 28, 5ft 7in, 210lb. Can cover 40 metres in under five seconds, led the NFL in rushing yards in 2011 and has been picked for the Pro Bowl three times, but is struggling this season behind a sub-par offensive line.
San Francisco 49ers
This season Second in NFC West. Won 5, lost 2.
Points Scored 176. Conceded: 135.
Last season NFC West (11-4-1), NFC champions, Super Bowl runners-up.
Honours 5 Super Bowls, 18 division titles.
Hall of fame players 22, incl. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young.
Key player Colin Kaepernick (quarterback) 25, 6ft 4in, 230lb. Cocky, tattooed prospect who took over from injured starter Alex Smith last season and led the team to the Super Bowl.
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