Football Thursday: Can 'Madden' video game do more to help NFL in London than the Jaguars?
LONDON – Roger Goodell is going to hate this.
But people in London don't want the Jacksonville Jaguars. They don't want Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne or whatever scatter-armed passer the Jags profess to be their franchise quarterback. They don't want a team that has won seven games since 2011 and seems unlikely to win another one anytime soon. In fact, they might not want an NFL team at all.
The irony of this is there are a lot of people in London who love the NFL. The league puts this number at two million – basing the figure on telephone surveys it has commissioned, ticket sales and interviews it conducts with fans after the games it plays here. But most of those two million have a team to which they have sworn their life's affections and nothing will wrest that club's jersey off their backs. Certainly it won't be the Jaguars if they decide to move here full time.
It is a sentiment best expressed by Gur Samuel, the author of the London football blogpullinglinemen.com, as he stood outside Wembley Stadium last Sunday in a white Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey and said: "I would want to buy Jaguars season tickets to support it because I don't want it to fail, but I don't think I can give up watching Bucs games to come out here."
The NFL has been serious for some time about moving a team to London. Too many hints have been dropped and arrangements made. An annual one-game experiment has been moved to two games this year and will likely grow to three next fall. After that the only way to continue growing is to move an existing team across the Atlantic.
"If that's going to happen it's going to happen in the next 10 years, it could be sooner," Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, a member of the league's international committee said last week. His words echoed those recently uttered by another owner who said London will have a franchise "in our lifetime."
To many in London, the obvious choice is the Jaguars, who have committed to playing home games the next four years at Wembley and owner Shalid Khan told British reporters upon buying the soccer team Fulham last summer that the Jags are "the home team for London."
And that discourages many of the league's British fans who have flocked to sell out the seven games the NFL has played at Wembley since 2007. Because they see failure in the Jaguars. They see an organization without a plan and they fear the Jaguars will be a flop.
"A lot of fans don't want to see a team here, since if it doesn't work, the NFL will say, 'Do we really want to be here?'" said Gerard Gillen, a student in London who spent his childhood in Ireland mocked by his fellow students for his devotion to the NFL.
Or as Samuel said: "They're going to come and get their cheap Jaguars flags and sit in the stands and they're going to see the team they're supposed to root for getting their backsides handed to them."
British fans aren't like ours. Their sports passions run deep, often from birth. They don't warm as Americans do to a new team dropped in their town – like the Ravens in Baltimore – wrapped in the expectation that it will be adored simply because it is theirs. Loyalty is stronger than that in London.
Those who love football here have already adopted their teams. They might adore those teams for strange reasons – like Paul Leparte from Chichester who is a Bengals fan because he likes tigers or his father, Martin, who picked the Cowboys because old Texas Stadium appeared in the opening credits of "Dallas."
Once those bonds are tied they are tied for good. Few of them see how the Jaguars can change that. The chances are more likely they resemble Chris George, a Lions fan in a Tim Tebow jersey ("I love Tebow more than I would love a son,") who thinks the greatest benefit the Jaguars would bring is to watch the opposing team's stars.
"I'm not going to come out and watch Luke Joeckel play football," he said.
Which is not the slogan the NFL was looking to hang on its London billboard.
American football fans are going to hate this.
The NFL is determined to make London work. Anyone who doubts that should have been standing Saturday afternoon on the city's biggest shopping avenue, Regent Street between the Oxford and Piccadilly Circuses. This is because the NFL had the road closed to traffic and filled 2,000 feet of pavement with every gimmick it knows to shove itself into Europe's awareness.
There were races on Jaguar-themed moonbounces, inflatable rooms in which one could catch balls shot from pitching machines just like the pros do, places to kick field goals, and a stage behind which fans could wait 90 minutes to get their picture taken with the Lombardi Trophy. There were trailers selling American burgers, a spot where old men dressed like Elvis square danced to techno pop, not to mention a television blaring the Jaguars' 2012 highlights, and a booth for the City of Jacksonville – as if to say: we'll give you our team if you come visit our miles of beautiful beaches.
It was – even for a league accustomed to excessive displays of cultural dominance – an excessive display of cultural dominance. And anyone wandering into this fiasco looking for a silk scarf at Liberty or a toy drum kit at Hamley's was assaulted by the red, white and blue NFL shield everywhere they looked – the street, the stages and even on banners dangling like laundry from wires high above the road.
"A statement that the NFL has arrived in London in a big way," NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood called the event.
League officials later said some 500,000 people went through Regent Street during the five hours it was under siege by America's football league. This is hard to verify because the league had said earlier in the day it was expecting 500,000 people. But the number does not seem inflated. The road was packed. And it wasn't just packed with wayward housewives on a shopping spree, but packed with thousands of Europeans in officially sanctioned NFL team jerseys. There were Cardinals and Rams and 49ers and Broncos. Someone even wore a Browns jersey – Trent Richardson no less.
After an hour in this muck of humanity, it was obvious the NFL has a place in London as much as American fans can't stand that fact. But the NFL needs London. Far more than London needs it. The NFL has grown into the world's wealthiest sports league by getting four American television networks to stuff billions of dollars into its pockets. But there will be a day when the networks have nothing left to stuff and the NFL doesn't want to be left without new outlets for growth. It is this search that has brought it to the UK.
"The ultimate goal for us is to build a strong fan base in the U.S. and in select markets around the world," Chris Parsons, the NFL's senior vice president of international said earlier on Saturday while sitting in the restaurant of the Landmark London Hotel.
He was asked why Americans should care if the NFL conquers London and he smiled.
"One thing I think is great about NFL fans in the U.S. is they understand the business of the NFL as well as having the passion for their teams," he said. "Expanding the NFL makes us a stronger league. It allows us to make new things, invest in new things and invest in new product development and new stadia, and those things benefit the teams back home. A strong NFL global brand will be good for the fans back in the U.S. as the league finds ways to excite and delight them."
And the NFL is definitely finding a place in the UK. In the past, it showed a handful of its games on Sky Sports, a subscription-based channel that didn't reach many homes. Now, with a new deal that shares those games on the free Channel 4, millions more in the UK can see games during our Sunday 1 p.m., 4 p.m. ET and Sunday night slots as well as Monday and Thursday. The games are live, which means they are all after 6 p.m. But they are being watched.
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"When I first started doing this I felt like Don King but without the hair in as much as I would tell people that this was a serious undertaking, that regular-season games were the best that we could put on here and that we would grow our fan base," Kirkwood said.
Or as Parsons said before heading to the league's Regent Street event: "Three, four years ago if we tried to do this, they would have laughed in our face."
Nobody's laughing now.
American advertisers are going to hate this.
British NFL fans can't stand our commercial breaks. "Adverts" they call them. And they don't get why we would ruin our sporting events on television by having them. There are, of course, no commercials in the middle of soccer matches, where play is continuous and commercials come only at halftime. And it's a serious impediment the NFL has in growing its game overseas.
"People will say, 'Oh wait a minute this is supposed to be a sport but it's not about the sport, it's about the advertising,'" said Riki Samuel, Gur's father, as he and his son waited to enter Wembley on Sunday. "'How do you stop a game to show an advert?' People actually say this."
When Gur Samuel tries to recruit friends to watch NFL games, he often loses them at the change of possessions when the ads come on in the U.S. Since British channels don't sell many of the commercial breaks, they fill the void with endless five-minute cuts to studio shows, where one or two analysts sit around small tables with hosts and talk about the previous handful of plays in a tedious exercise.
"People don't want their attention broken up by adverts," he said.
This is an issue for an NFL that desperately wants to reach young people in the UK. It figures it can only do so much with people over the age of 30. Those fans have their sports and their teams, and the NFL believes they aren't going to be as open to accepting the NFL as younger people who might be willing to embrace an American sport.
It's a risk. Passion for soccer in England is massive, and the NFL still trails sports like cricket and rugby in the popularity polls the league takes. And American football's best hope might not lie in the Jaguars or Channel 4 but in a familiar cellophane-wrapped case.
A common theme among people in their 20s who came to Wembley on Sunday is that they play the "Madden" NFL video game. And not only do they play "Madden" but their friends play "Madden" and those friends play "Madden."
"All the students we know have 'Madden,'" said George, the Lions fan who won't watch Luke Joeckel.
"Madden" does what the NFL can't in Great Britain. It explains the game and its complicated rules and strategies. For years, "Madden" has been making a generation of Americans more sophisticated about the nuances of football by allowing kids who never put on a helmet to experience playbooks and defensive schemes. It's slowly starting to do the same in London.
"Once you learn the Xs and Os you learn a lot, it's a strategic chess match," said Gillen, the student from Ireland.
EA Sports, "Madden's" developers, don't have definite numbers of its penetration into the UK. "We know we have a solid fan base there," said Seann Graddy, the "Madden NFL 25" line producer.
NFL players and coaches are going to hate this.
There is nothing easy about traveling to London for American football teams. Players arriving last week talked of long overnight flights with little sleep. While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spoke positively about his experiences in London, calling it "a beautiful city," he also said after the game that he was fine with a team playing eight games a year in England as long as he wasn't on it.Other players expressed similar sentiments.
"It's a lot to ask of a player," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said last week. "I probably wouldn't sign over here because every road trip would be three, four, five days."
But how much time will players on a London team actually spend in London?
Whatever team moves here is going to keep an American base and an American staff. Some personnel executives stay in the U.S. full time to work out potential free agents during the season. Say the London team quickly needs a new linebacker or isn't happy with its punter, it isn't going to fly 10 players overseas for tryouts but will instead do that at the team's American facility. Coaches based in London would watch the workouts on Skype or could later see a video sent to their computer.
Rooney said the London team will likely need to hold training camp somewhere in the U.S. Too many players come and go for an overseas operation to be feasible in the summer. League officials talk about the difficulty of dealing with players who don't have passports because they haven't travelled internationally in their lives. It's one thing for a team like the Vikings to spend months making sure everybody on the roster has a passport for a London trip that had been planned for more than a year. It's another to expect a promising safety at Arkansas State has one in his apartment and can quickly jump on a plane to the UK.
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In addition to training camp, Rooney said the London team might have to play its preseason games in the U.S. given the logistical challenges of moving 200 players between two teams overseas for just one game (although this was done several times in the 1990s). It is possible, too, that OTAs and minicamps will also be held at the U.S. base.
If you figure – as many team executives do – that the London team will work on an in-season schedule in which it plays two games at home and two in the U.S., then players on the London team might spend only nine weeks a year in England, living the rest of the time near the American base.
Having the base in an American city might be a way around paying players in British currency, where currently one pound is worth $1.62. It's a substantial gap. Add in London's higher tax structure and there is no way an NFL team could function in the UK without some kind of salary cap revision or agreement with the British government, and potentially the European Union.
Rooney said the NFL will need to negotiate some kind of agreement with the players union to accommodate the London franchise.
Asked if those talks have taken place, he said: "Not formally."
Americans are going to love this.
Despite years of rumor and even open suggestions by Goodell, the NFL will not move the Super Bowl to London in the next 10 years – if at all. "That's a ways off," Rooney said. "I think it would take having a franchise here first."
A Super Bowl in London would be a logistical nightmare even more complicated than having a franchise in the city. While league officials salivate over the 85,000-seat Wembley Stadium, accessible by several London Underground lines, they worry about the other problems of playing the NFL's biggest game in another continent, primarily how to handle a start time of around midnight in London.
"It's a late kick so that makes that a challenge," Parsons said. "Wembley would be a phenomenal venue, it's the national stadium here. The notion of a Super Bowl makes a great headline but the practicalities of it I think are challenging. We have to establish a lot of the things we [want] to establish here."
A hard enough task if one of those things is the Jacksonville Jaguars.