On July 29, 1995, two brand-new NFL expansion teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers — squared off in an exhibition game at Fawcett Field in Canton, Ohio. The fledgling franchises played on grass adjacent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as if the NFL felt a need to decisively welcome each squad into the historic fabric of the league.
Twenty years since that initial bout, which the Panthers won 20–14, the NFL is a very different sport, with each team standing on very different ground. One squad seems poised to make a deep playoff run, if not now, at least in the next few years, while the other seems to be making a not so subtle transition to a home in the United Kingdom — London, to be precise.
The first of those teams, the Carolina Panthers, have kept busy. They lost Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003 to an iconic New England Patriots team, made it to the playoffs five other seasons (including the last two years with ascending QB Cam Newton), and even had a franchise-defining face in speedy WR Steve Smith. Their success, and an ambiguous name — they play in Charlotte, North Carolina, but have been embraced by both Carolinas — along with many important inner-division rivalries, have kept them both relevant and rooted for. However, the same can't be said for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the last three years, the Jaguars have won three, four, and two games, respectively. The team has no franchise cornerstone to sell jerseys. Their best bet, Justin Blackmon, is an extreme example of a wide receiver diva gone too far, and even though as the NFL's second youngest team, the Jags should trend upward in the next few years, there just don't seem to be enough fans to care. The franchise has never ranked higher than 19th in stadium attendance, lives in the cellar for TV viewership, and is even disliked nationally — years of surveys by Harris Interactive found that the Jaguars were the least popular team in the league, five years running. And yet, this is the team the NFL has worked overtime to sell to Londoners going "Gangbusters for the Gridiron" just over the pond.
It's difficult to blame the NFL for its aggressive Jaguars-to-London bid. In the summer of 2012, under the new leadership of Pakistani-American owner Shad Khan, Jacksonville signed a four-year deal, spanning from 2013–2016, that would have the team "host" a home game each year at London's Wembley Stadium. Football games in London were old hat by that point, the first had taken place in 2007 between the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins, and each year the games had sold out. It marked another attempt by the NFL to initiate a definitive presence in the country — the other being a commitment by the St. Louis Rams to play one game a season for three years — both overstated efforts to actually see if London could bond with a single team, instead of just the sport itself.
Londoners have gobbled up American football. Many Americans watching those International Series games may have wondered if Wembley is just chock-full of Americans abroad, a stadium full of Yanks yearning for a slice of home. But the NFL U.K. managing director, Alistair Kirkwood, has gone on record saying "85–90 percent of the crowd is British." TV ratings have increased each year — the NFL enjoyed a 154 percent increase in U.K. viewership figures from 2006 to 2012 — and 13.8 million people watched NFL programming last year in the U.K., while 3.5 million specifically tuned in to the Super Bowl. But while there is clear support for American football, there is little evidence that Londoners care much for the Jacksonville Jaguars (or the St. Louis Rams, for that matter, whose possible relocation efforts are now centered on Los Angeles). No, instead, and rather predictably, the Brits favor winning. According to a Harvard assessment of U.K. Facebook proclivities, Tom Brady's New England Patriots would find the most support along the banks of the Thames. Americans favor Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United as their preferred English Premier League teams. Put in this context, wouldn't most Americans balk if the EPL sent us Leicester City?
The NFL has never officially indicated that it has plans to move the Jacksonville Jaguars overseas. Recently, the Internet nearly exploded over a fabricated story that Jags owner Shad Khan had plans to sell his English football team, Fulham, in order to acquire Tottenham. The move would give him instrumental access to Tottenham's ambitious planned stadium, slotted for a 2019 grand opening, which has already partnered with the NFL and plans to host a decade of American football games — enabled primarily by its retractable turf field. Despite these ambiguities, it seems the Jaguars aim to feature prominently in the NFL's Tottenham deal, and even at this very moment, the squad continues to maintain a U.K. presence. The Jaguars actually have a U.K. website, which provides links to the "Union Jax Fan Club" (a page that declares London the Jaguars' second home), and to "Jags in the Community," which details Jaguars road show opportunities in Britain.
Most can assume that should the Jaguars move to London, a lot of people would be happy. Owner Shad Khan, for starters, who is clearly committed to expanding his fan base past its current mediocre draw. It would mark the realization of a massive dream for the NFL International folks, who first projected in 2007 that it would take 15 years to get a team abroad. And it would be exciting, too, for the London mayor, Boris Johnson, who during the reveal of the NFL-Tottenham stadium partnership said, "Touchdowns in Tottenham can only add to our reputation as a global sporting powerhouse, and help us take another step towards our goal of having a permanent NFL franchise here in London."
But how would the men and women of Great Britain react? Especially those who have faithfully followed American football? They're certainly more aware of the game than given credit for, so is it really fair to expect massive support upon relocation? And if the NFL can't expect support from Great Britain, that say, Canada (with its NFL fan base of 970,000, and proven track record in every other major professional American sport) could provide, how can the league justify the logistics surrounding London?
The Jaguars play in the AFC South, and their westernmost opponent is the Houston Texans. A flight from Houston to London takes nine hours, an awkward distance that would be compounded by a six-hour time difference. Football players operate on hectic schedules. The day after a game ends, it's already very much time to prep for next Sunday. Wouldn't the Jaguars be at a constant disadvantage from what is likely to be a crazy travel burden? And that's without addressing an inevitable match-up with a California team a world away.
A London team also can't feasibly host a primetime game on Sunday or Monday night (a nightmare for marketing the new team to an American audience, especially in playoff scenarios), due to the dramatic time difference. But what makes this situation so difficult to understand is that the NFL really could expand its global brand without so much risk and uncertainty. Think North. Though the Canadian Football League's wealth, especially among players, is dwarfed by its American equivalent, it is still a successful institution that's lasted since 1958 — one that boasts a $43 million annual TV deal with TSN (the Canadian ESPN outlet). Just as Montreal is counted among the many cities vying for a new expansion team in the MLB, the NFL can't afford to ignore proven demand, especially when it's conveniently placed on the same continent. Whether Montreal, Toronto, or even Vancouver, Canadian cities would not only start with more people familiar with the rules of the game, they'd be familiar and welcome sites for American sports fans.
This is, of course, all conjecture. And perhaps the London Jaguars would earn a very loyal fan base. Who knows, maybe even a royal fan base, if Prince William and Kate give her full support, but still, wouldn't the Kingdom feel a little gipped? This fall, on October 25, the Jags will take on the Buffalo Bills. In America, at least in the last few years, that game would attract eyes for fantasy stats, not much else.
Developing in the past few days, the Jaguars are expected to announce a four-year extension with the U.K., continuing with a game a year. Really, the Jaguars have almost seemed destined for this weird limbo state. Though Jacksonville is a large city, there isn't a defined greater-suburban area, and team support has always floundered as a result. All these years later, after that initial battle of expansion teams in Canton, the Carolina Panthers seem about as likely to move to London as the Patriots. We now know that American football isn't as American as it once was. There certainly is a demand to be quenched. We're just not sure if we can offer the right flavor Gatorade. A sell-out in Wembley this October could go a long way to convincing the NFL that after years of attempts to grow the game abroad, for better or for worse, London's calling.