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Eisenberg: London Experiment Is Working, But It's Hard to Believe a British NFL Team Is Next

Posted Sep 23, 2017

If you're the NFL, it's a no-brainer to try to grow your game and develop a new international market. A couple games a year has worked in London, but football may never course through the veins of enough sports fans there.

If you’re a Ravens fan and you’re reading this on your phone at the Tower of London, or in the shadow of Big Ben, or with your mates at a pub, you’re one lucky soul.

Baltimore’s football loyalists have taken plenty of unforgettable road trips over the years, such as the foray to New Orleans for the Super Bowl in 2013. Seeing the Ravens play Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium will surely rank with the best, regardless of how the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars turns out.

Not only are you visiting another corner of the world, always a plus in my book, but you’re also seeing your team play in one of the world’s great sports cathedrals. (For the record, it isn’t the Wembley that hosted England’s legendary triumph in soccer’s World Cup in 1966. That stadium was replaced by a new Wembley in 2007.)

I’m sure the NFL is delighted that fans of its teams now have the opportunity to travel internationally, adding to the experience of supporting the team.

But of course, that’s not why the league began playing games in England in 2007. It was a dollars-and-cents move.

England had millions of sports fans who were in love with such sports as soccer and cricket, but were unfamiliar with “American football.” If you’re the NFL, it was a no-brainer to bring your game to them and try to develop a new market. The business whizzes call it a “growth opportunity.”

After a decade of playing games in London every year, there are metrics that indicate the experiment is working. As the Baltimore Sun noted earlier this week, the United Kingdom’s Super Bowl audience has grown more than 75 percent in the past decade and viewership of Sunday NFL games has more than doubled, according to the league.

A Facebook group for Ravens fans in the U.K. has nearly 2,000 members, and the group’s leaders estimate another 1,000 fans of the team are in the U.K.

Although thousands from Baltimore will attend Sunday, the NFL has determined that around 90 percent of fans at London games are British, again according to the Baltimore Sun.

Where is all this headed? The NFL has said London could eventually get its own team if interest swells enough.

I get why the league floats the possibility, and you never know what might happen, but I have trouble believing we’ll see the London Monarchs on the regular-season schedule one day. (That was London’s team in a European-based developmental league that the NFL backed between 1991 and 2007.)

There are just so many obstacles. The time difference – as many as nine hours from America’s West Coast, depending on the time of year  would create major fairness issues.

A London team making eight road trips to America per season would be at a competitive disadvantage. One trip alone is a logistical effort. The Ravens have spent hundreds of organizational man-hours plotting their London excursion down to the minutest detail.

Also – and this is big – since not that many people in the U.K. actually play football, the proposed “home” team would be comprised, perhaps entirely, of foreigners. That could be a tough sell in the long run.

Most importantly, I’m just not sure football is ever going to course through the veins of enough sports fans there, as it does here.

I don’t want to impugn the passionate U.K. fans the NFL has cultivated, but it’s quite a leap from carving out a niche to seeing a soccer-first population support a team year in and year out, through all the ups and downs, especially after the freshness wears off.

Londoners have done that forever with Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and other clubs in soccer’s English Premier League. That’s their tradition, their cultural history.

It’s a sign of shifting sands that NFL games can draw crowds now, but I’ll believe the London Monarchs (or Whatevers) are playing in the NFL when I see them kick off.

In the meantime, for American fans, the NFL’s London experiment remains, primarily, an excuse to take a trip … a great trip. If you’re wearing purple in London this weekend, have a blast and, my advice, take a ton of pictures.

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