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.
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.