- - Thursday, October 27, 2016

LONDON — The Union Jacks were lowered and the NFL shield was raised as famed Regent Street once again prepared for an American takeover.

A league that knows grandeur better than any other welcomed thousands of visitors on Oct. 1, shutting down a half-mile stretch of the United Kingdom capital’s major shopping district and turning it into a playground for the fourth consecutive year.

Fans of all ages competed in drills, comparing their talents with those of current players. Commissioner Roger Goodell hosted a fan forum, fielding a number of London-centric questions from the audience. Players from the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, who played the following day at Wembley Stadium, signed autographs and posed for pictures.

As the first decade of regular-season games in the city comes to a close Sunday, when the Washington Redskins face the Cincinnati Bengals, the mutual fascination between London and the NFL doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Tickets to each of the 17 games, including Sunday’s, have been sold out. Television ratings, slumping in the United States, have nearly doubled in the United Kingdom since the start of last year. Participation in British adult leagues is up nearly 20 percent.

Those numbers point to the potential of a franchise taking up residence in the city, which a number of league officials have said over the years remains a possibility. Contracts already call for the NFL to host a minimum of two games in London through 2027, with the escalation from three games this year to four games next year appearing likely.

A number of logistical hurdles still need to be overcome before such a move becomes permanent, but as overseas games continue, they are starting to show it’s feasible.

“The enthusiasm and the support is clearly here,” said Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, whose team has played two games in London — including one on Sunday. “I know the league is looking really hard at it, and I think it would be really great for the National Football League, at some point in the future, that it would happen.”

Years to gain a foothold

Stewart Sharp has been a fan of the Redskins since the early 1980s, when he watched running back John Riggins power them to a victory in Super Bowl XVII.

Back then, Mr. Sharp, 53, from Watford, had to work to maintain a connection to the league. He tuned into Channel 4’s weekly highlight shows, read First Down magazine and bought tickets to the American Bowl, a preseason game held in London each year from 1986 through 1993.

But Mr. Sharp, like many other British fans of the NFL, spent much of the late 1990s and early 2000s in the dark. While the league in the United States was undergoing a period of great expansion, adding and relocating franchises and benefiting from a boom in domestic popularity, the NFL had effectively forgotten about London. The only vestige of the sport in the city was NFL Europe, a spring developmental league with franchises in four European countries. Sky Sports, a nascent satellite subscription television channel, carried a limited recap show beginning in 1995.

“We started to come to see London Monarchs at Wembley at the final [in 1991], and then it kind of petered out a bit,” said Mr. Sharp, who attended Sunday’s Rams-Giants game at Twickenham with his sons, Scott and Lee. “Then the games started coming over again, so that’s it.”

The NFL reappeared in the United Kingdom in 2007 with a game between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins at Wembley. A dreadful game played in the rain — Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for just 59 yards, and Dolphins kicker Jay Feely said afterward that the grass surface “was like ice” — it was not the most triumphant return.

“You went from ‘98 to 2007 just working off TV viewing figures and trying to work out if there was still a fan base here,” said Neil Reynolds, who writes about the league for its NFL U.K. website and serves as a commentator for Sky Sports. “From that to having never staged an international regular-season game in London as well, there was probably an element of a gamble. They’d probably never call it a gamble, but there was some risk attached to it. It was a brave move.”

Still, the league stuck with its plans, holding one game at Wembley over each of the next five years. A second game was added in 2013 when, hoping to grow a dedicated overseas fan base, the Jaguars agreed to a four-year deal to play one of its home games a year in the venue. A third NFL game was added a year later.

The Jaguars, who reportedly receive 15 percent of their local revenue from the London game alone, extended that agreement last October through the 2020 season. Simultaneously, the NFL announced that it would hold games at two additional London venues — Twickenham Stadium, where the Rams played the Giants, and White Hart Lane, which will begin hosting games when its redevelopment is complete in 2018.

That stadium is of particular interest to the NFL. Home to English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, its chairman, Daniel Levy, told ESPN last month that his side had been working in concert with the NFL to construct a facility that would meet American football standards — including a larger locker room and an artificial turf surface.

Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president for international, characterized the extent of the league’s input on the venue as “additive,” saying it has offered information only on the desired size of locker rooms and hospitality and tailgate areas.

He would not say, however, if it was being eyed as the full-time home of a franchise.

“We, I think, were responsive, obviously, to their approaches,” Mr. Waller said. “It’s definitely a mutually beneficial arrangement. If the question is, ‘Who asked who to the dance?’ then they invited us.”

Building a franchise base

Minor or major, every facet of the game experience is challenged in some way by a trip to London — and the NFL, which provides charter flights and luxury accommodations for team personnel, can do only so much to mitigate the differences.

A five-hour time difference and a seven-hour flight mean those flying to the city lose the better portion of a day — and that’s just from the East Coast. The volatility of the international markets would mean those coaching, playing or working for a London team would be paid and taxed differently. The NHL has struggled with that issue in Canada for decades.

Adjustments would also need to be made in the way teams prepare. Fisher, the Rams’ coach, said the team began making arrangements in March for the game against the Giants, but that wouldn’t be possible if a London team advanced to the playoffs. If teams continue to travel overseas days before the game is played, they won’t have ample time to ship their practice essentials by freight.

Ultimately, the success of an overseas franchise rests on fan support, which appears to be there. All but two of the 15 games at Wembley drew more than 83,000 people, and tickets at Twickenham, with capacity reduced to 74,000 this past Sunday, sold out in a matter of hours.

In February, Reynolds co-hosted a fan rally with Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was taken aback by the depth of their knowledge.

“I was pleasantly surprised how well they know the league, how closely they follow the league and the diversity of fans over there in terms of the teams they root for,” Cousins told Cincinnati-area reporters this week. “I enjoyed being able to interact with them and talk about the league and football and be able to feel their excitement for the sport.”

Its growth can be measured in different ways. According to NFL UK, more than 30,000 players and coaches are involved with football in the country. It is the fastest-growing sport at British universities, and participation in youth flag football leagues has risen 90.6 percent from last fall.

Media coverage, though, still varies. An estimated 9.5 million people each week have watched games on BBC and Sky Sports through the first half of the season, up from about 5 million viewers a year ago, but many national newspapers have grown tired of the games, with several ignoring it completely.

Mr. Reynolds started covering the NFL in 1991, and he has noticed a significant change in local response in 25 years. Though he acknowledged it will never surpass soccer as the nation’s favorite sport, it has become clear that the interest is significant.

“Originally, it was people my age, people in their mid-40s, who were watching NFL from the first go-around [in the 1980s],” he said. “Now, everybody knows Tom Brady. They don’t know Dan Marino. They want to watch Cam Newton, not Joe Montana. It’s all helped to sort of bring in a new fan base. I think it has kind of made people in the States sit up and take notice — especially the owners and the commissioner.”


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