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Way We Hear It

London lukewarm to NFL's desire to grow game overseas

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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Posted Oct. 22, 2012 @ 12:23 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Here’s something we think you should know about the vast majority of the 85,000 or so people in attendance at London’s Wembley Stadium next Sunday when the Patriots take on the Rams in the league’s latest attempt to bolster its presence worldwide.

“To be honest, do the people here really know who Aaron Rodgers is? I’d say no,” London Daily Express NFL correspondent Andrew Elliott told PFW in a transcontinental phone conversation just hours after it was revealed at the fall owners’ meeting Oct. 16 in Chicago that London would be doubling its pro football pleasure with two NFL games at Wembley Stadium in 2013 — Vikings-Steelers (Sept. 29), in addition to a previously announced 49ers-Jaguars game (Oct. 27), the first of four overseas games in the next four years featuring Shahid Khan’s Jaguars.  

“If Rodgers were walking on the streets of London, nobody would have a clue who he is,” continued Elliott. “Peyton Manning might be the biggest NFL name. But they’re hardly singing his praises here today after his great game against San Diego.

“I would have to say, to this day probably the most recognizable NFL figure would have to be William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry. The Bears were very big when they played over here. Everybody remembers the ‘Fridge.’ ”

Elliott believes the Rams, the designated home team next Sunday, can forget about any kind of an edge.

“It has to be weird for all the ‘home teams’ in these games,” he said. “Their support is significantly less that what they would be getting in a normal home game. But it also makes it quite interesting, because teams in the U.S. aren’t often playing in front of 80,000-plus people.

“But in the London games, they get a soccer-style atmosphere. People cheer when they’re not supposed to. Like when the offense would prefer for it to be a bit quieter, but the people cheer even more, thinking that they are helping more by voicing their support.”

Which brings us to PFW’s major point worth making after picking the brains of an array of people — both here and abroad — in an attempt to figure out just what in the world is really going on regarding an NFL franchise actually setting up shop overseas full time, presumably in London.

Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked at the fall owners’ meeting how much the decision to play multiple games in London is part of a strategic plan for possibly having a team in London or some other European city.

It is a big part of it,” Goodell replied. “If we can play multiple regular-season games there, that gives you a better opportunity to be successful if you choose to put a franchise in London. … We welcome the fans coming from other parts of Europe. But this is a way to really build that fan base right now in London, which will be critical if you did have a franchise there.”

But the sources closest to the scene told PFW that they realistically couldn’t see a full-time franchise in London in the foreseeable future, taking into account the aforementioned audience as it now stands.

“I haven't sensed a big public outpouring for (a full-time London franchise),” Associated Press European sports editor Steve Wilson told PFW. “I think fans are happy to go to a game or two a year, but I'm not sure they expect more than that.

“I'm not sure how realistic it really is. The logistics of placing a team in London, with the requisite travel and other challenges are still a major hurdle. Beside the logistical challenges, you would have to find the right venue. Wembley is also used for England soccer games and other events, so there could be scheduling issues. There is no other ideal venue at the moment for an NFL team.

“Personally, I am also not sure there is enough of a fan base in London that would support an NFL team — especially one that is not among the top teams — week in and week out, especially during the Premier League soccer season. So, overall, I think the prospect of having a full-time NFL team in London anytime soon is still a long shot.”

Enter Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who begs to differ.

“Shad has incredibly high expectations in a very broad vision for the Jaguars,” team president Mark Lamping told PFW. “One thing that we know we have to do to be successful is to broaden the appeal of the Jaguars. We believe we can be a stronger franchise in Jacksonville if we play the majority of our games in Jacksonville and one game in London. It obviously raises the awareness of the Jaguars. Anytime you can get awareness in one of the world’s great cities, it’s a positive.

“You have an owner who has a real commitment. An owner who is very familiar with life outside of the U.S. because of his background and worldwide auto-parts business, and we understand what we need to accomplish to be stable in Jacksonville.”

That last sentence in the above quote is key.

While Khan appears to savor the role he has recently taken on as NFL ownership’s No. 1 crusader for a full-time franchise overseas, his team’s commitment to play a game in London each of the next four years, beginning next season, is much more a means to a definite end — stability in Jacksonville.

“We had discussions with the most important stakeholders in Jacksonville, including the local government and state government, our fans and our sponsors, and as a result, we were encouraged to explore playing internationally,” Lamping said. “That typically doesn’t happen. In our case, everyone understood that it would be very good in terms of awareness, economic development and tourism.

“In London, they are well aware of The Players’ Championship (the PGA golf tournament that’s held at TPC Sawgrass in Jacksonville every May). But they didn’t know that it’s held in Jacksonville. The No. 1 tourist destination for the U.K. is Florida. Jacksonville has had tremendous growth in the last 25 years as an insurance capital. The same thing in London.

“From a team standpoint, in return for making a commitment to a home game in each of the next four years, we have received certain conditional marketing rights we can exploit in the U.K., which gives us one more thing to sell.”

How well Khan sells the pro football product in London the next four years, however, figures to have a direct bearing on the league’s seemingly genuine commitment to a full-time NFL franchise abroad, the overseas audience’s decidedly casual fan interest notwithstanding.

“Absolutely, it can happen,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told PFW at the fall owners’ meetings. “Any company, any business you brand wants to be international. We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in North America, but you want to take your brand overseas to Europe and eventually global. It’s only plus-plus if you can.”

“I think it’s going to be good,” Jaguars C Brad Meester told PFW. “We’ve done a great job of trying to expand our market outside of Jacksonville. We did a great job of it this offseason by trying to expand to towns outside Jacksonville — Georgia, southern Florida — and I think it’s going to be huge to go international.

“The guys are looking forward to go over there. We’re not a young, young team, but the more that we can get out there and grow our fan base, the better.”

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