Keeping Score

America Is Exporting a Rotten Product to Great Britain

We're talking, of course, about the Jacksonville Jaguars, who play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and are trying to attract British fans

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Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

A pair of depressed Jacksonville Jaguars fans at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 20, 2013

For years, the NFL has tried selling American football to Europe, with little lasting success. NFL Europe went out of business in 2007. Sure, the league’s annual regular-season games in London have fared well. They tend to sell out within hours; over 80,000 fans bought tickets to see the Minnesota Vikings defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-27, in late September. But the NFL has a far smaller global imprint than the NBA or Major League Baseball.

In Great Britain, there’s probably not enough fan interest to support a permanent NFL franchise. “One of the tensions for the English audience is our favored sports have an element of flow,” John Williams, the director of the Center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, told the New York Times. “Play is not broken for tactical talks or time-outs. That’s always been a mystery for British fans, who think the games are too contrived and made for TV and too brutal.”

One NFL owner, however, is making a big bet on attracting an English audience. The problem: his product is atrocious. If the NFL is going to win in Great Britain, is trying to sell its worst team a sound strategy?

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 0-7. On average, opponents are beating them by three touchdowns per game. The Jags play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Wembley Stadium; the Niners are favored to win by 16.5 points. Two weeks ago, Jacksonville was on the embarrassing end of the largest point spread in NFL history, 28 points. At least they covered, losing 35-19 to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

This summer, the Jaguars and the NFL announced that the team would play a game in London for four straight seasons, starting this year. For Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, success in London may help offset his struggles in Jacksonville, one of the NFL’s smallest markets. “Everybody needs to understand that playing games in London is very, very important for Jacksonville and very important for this franchise,” Khan said this summer, via jacksonville.com. “We need fans, we need corporate sponsors … London is the missing piece.” To entice fans to buy tickets for a Jacksonville home game, the Jags recently offered free beer. The team currently ranks 29th in NFL attendance, and last in net revenue per ticket sold.

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This summer Khan, the first foreign-born owner of an NFL franchise — he grew up in Pakistan — purchased Fulham Football Club, an English Premier League team based in London. Khan has already used the Fulham connection to promote the Jaguars. As the New York Times reports:

To whet their appetites, he sent the Jaguars’ cheerleaders to perform at a Fulham match, and a British lingerie company created a calendar for them. The newly formed Union Jax Jaguars fan club in Britain has about 17,000 members.

These fans must enjoy pain. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has long floated the idea of a London franchise. But Khan is insisting he’s not looking to move the team, across the pond or anywhere else. This summer, the team reached an agreement with the city of Jacksonville for $63 million worth of renovations to its stadium, EverBank Field. Khan is spending $20 million in the deal; the rest falls on Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is not the first team to try to sell a losing product to a national audience. In the late 1980s, for example, the Atlanta Braves pitched themselves as “America’s Team,” since Braves games were beamed into households across the country on the TBS cable network. Ted Turner owned both the TV station and the team, and these were the days before fans could watch any team they want, anywhere, on their cell phones and computers. The “America’s Team” slogan was comic, as the Braves were truly terrible back then.

But there’s certainly hope for Jacksonville to become “Great Britain’s Team.” In the early 1990s, the Braves stared winning division titles every year. The Jags are a good bet to finish with the NFL’s worst record — though their fellow Floridians across the state, the Tampa Bay Bucs, will give them a run for it. That would put them in a position to draft a franchise quarterback. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater is getting high grades. A guy like that can turn a team around. The fortunes of NFL teams change quickly; the Jags could be winners soon enough.

Then, England may be ready to really embrace that other football.

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12 comments
pendragon05
pendragon05

Speaking as someone with VERY close ties to the UK, I am pretty sure they prefer rugby to American football.

JamesJohnson2
JamesJohnson2

ya. too bad football was born and raised in a country that turned it as much a money machine as itself

SimonV
SimonV

What a stunningly ignorant article, on just about every account. Just to start with, are we talking about England, Great Britain or London as the basis for the NFL? Very hard to tell as the use of all three suggests the writer doesn't really know. The headline is pure garbage (which probably isn't the writer's fault) as the 'product' in question is the NFL, and there is clearly nothing rotten about that. And, if London WAS worried about it, why did the two Wembley games sell out months ago? The statement of not enough fan interest to support a full-time franchise is clearly erroneous in the face of the evidence (sold-out games, growing TV coverage, expanding fan base now numbered in the millions) while the quote from a truly obscure 'sociology' centre beggars belief. Is that really the most authoritative source the writer could find? No national sports body, or media member? No quote from the NFL's London base, who can show positive fan growth over the last 10 years? No real research? Because if there had been, it would realise the Jaguars (and 49ers - there were 2 teams involved, by the way, and San Francisco is far from a 'rotten' product) were picked for this more than a year ago, and it is just unfortunate the Jags are having such a miserable season (which is down to previous ownership, by the way, also unmentioned). Sorry, but this is sloppy, lazy, top-of-the-head journalism which only ultimately proves there really is something rather rotten in this writer's working MO.

Katie62058541
Katie62058541

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Theungry
Theungry

"“One of the tensions for the English audience is our favored sports have an element of flow,”

Like Tennis, Golf and Cricket?

Oh you mean just soccer.  Okay, carry on then.

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Victoria5508

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SamSweden
SamSweden

I do not think American football will ever be popular either in UK or Europe or for that matter : the world. Soccer (football) will always be the world wide king supreme sport...

Al-Kidder
Al-Kidder

@SamSweden  Probably true, if only because it has such a headstart. What is dull about it is the low scoring aspect, so luck plays too big a role in the outcome. Now adding an extra set of posts to get a score for near misses, say 1 pt vs 6 for a goal would improve it enormously. But then you'd be looking at Australian Rules

Al-Kidder
Al-Kidder

@TheungryWatch a game of Rugby, fool.. All the players have to be able to tackle and catch a pass, unlike gridiron, which seems to have a few players who use the ball and a whole lot of hired muscle to play mass Sumo

 In Rugby League, which is the commercialised form of the game, play stops for about 3 seconds when a player gets tackled and gets back to his feet.

In Rugby Union, play goes on. The tackled player is penalised if he hangs onto the ball.

Both forms of the game have play moving up and down and across the field as fast as the ball can move.

Not like that dreary ritual Yanks call football



SamSweden
SamSweden

@Al-Kidder @SamSweden 

Australian rugby Al-Kidder (is it called rugby)? is definitely far more exciting and more interesting to watch than - with due respect - watching the boring American football...

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