Listen to this article
Conan Jal is an American football obsessive. By day, the 36-year-old Londoner is an account manager for an exhibitions company. In his spare time, he helps to run the Kingston Cougars, a university team in south London.
“I got into the sport when I was young,” he says. “I have never been a die-hard, supporting an established [US] team . . . we’re waiting for a London team.”
That wait might soon be over. The National Football League, the body that runs the sport’s professional ranks in the US, believes it can establish an American football team in London by 2023. The ambitious plan for a London “franchise” is based on a bet that the capital has unique credentials as a sporting city: an international metropolis stuffed with potential fans, a lucrative TV market attractive to sponsors, and home to stadiums and professional sports clubs that can house an NFL team.
The organisation has been testing the concept for years. Since 2007, it has staged regular season matches in London, all but one of which have been sold out and with 1.5m people attending games in the city to date.
This autumn, London is hosting four NFL matches, split between Wembley stadium, the home of English football (or “soccer”, as Americans call it) and Twickenham stadium, the headquarters of English rugby union. In any season, a team will be required to play at least eight home games.
Many of the capital’s powerbrokers back the idea of a London team. Sadiq Khan, the mayor, has said it is his “dream, vision and aspiration” to have an NFL team. In 2015, the UK’s then chancellor George Osborne said the idea was a “real touchdown for London”. He has since quit politics to be editor of London’s Evening Standard, an influential perch from which he could promote the game.
Jal is not as convinced. As a regular at NFL matches in London, he notes that thousands of fans wear jerseys of their favourite US sides — supporting a team is a hard habit to break. “There is no doubt there is an appetite for American football on a regular basis,” he says. “It’s not a stretch to go from four to eight games. But you have to reconcile the idea that a load of people will need to go from supporting the Miami Dolphins or the Pittsburgh Steelers to a London team. I don’t think that will that happen.”
The man tasked with winning over the sceptics is Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president of international and events. A British émigré to New York, he heads the league’s expansion abroad. As the sport nears saturation point in the US, the NFL is attempting to grow by gaining a foothold in other countries.
Waller says it has been proved that a London franchise is “viable”. The bigger problem will be to show it can also be a winning team. “The fundamental question, which we are as yet unable to answer, is: could a team in London be competitive week in, week out, year in, year out?” he says. “To the extent that everybody related to that team, whether it’s the players, the coaches, the fans, the sponsors or the business partners, would have the commitment and belief that the team could compete and have a realistic chance of winning the Super Bowl.”
The move would probably require one of the NFL’s 32 teams to move across the Atlantic. The Florida-based Jacksonville Jaguars are seen by some as likeliest to make the leap. The team’s owner, Shahid Khan, also owns Fulham football club in west London. The Jaguars have already made London a second home, with a deal to play a game in the city every season until 2020. Back in Jacksonville, the team’s struggles on the pitch mean attendances are poor compared with its rivals — the Jaguars last appeared in the end-of-season playoffs in 2007 and have never won a Super Bowl.
There are other obstacles to an NFL team setting up in London. Much will depend on the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, negotiated between multiple parties, including the 32 team owners and the NFLPA — the players union, which dictates matters such as distribution of league revenues and employment conditions for players. The current agreement runs until 2020, with significant concessions needed on all sides to make a London franchise viable.
One important change may be to the regime of salary caps for players, such as allowing a London team to pay more than rivals so it can recruit experienced players otherwise reluctant to live abroad, as well as helping to offset the impact of UK’s higher taxes. Reports suggest team owners are reluctant to sign off on such a move.
The NFL will have to be creative in other ways. It has signed a 10-year deal with Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur to hold American football matches at its new stadium when it opens next year. Waller believes a London team could play across all three venues — Tottenham, Wembley and Twickenham — while sharing training facilities with the city’s many professional football and rugby clubs. “There will be levels of compromise,” he says. “Players, like everybody, are creatures of habit. It’s probably not ideal, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either.” To avoid players needing to constantly acclimatise between different time zones, a London team could play matches in blocks, with two or three at home followed by two or three in the US.
While financial considerations will determine whether London gets a team, there are signs that the sport is taking off in the UK. According to Sport England, a public body that promotes community sport, more than 40,000 people aged 14 or above play American football in some form. Participation has been boosted by NFL matches being televised by Sky and the BBC in recent years; the NFL estimates that a cumulative total of 23m people in the UK watched TV coverage last season.
“A London team will help the grassroots,” says Jal, the American football supporter. “If you’re a kid in London, your sporting allegiance will go to the main sport and you will become a Chelsea fan or Spurs fan. But if there’s another sport in the city which is glitzy and fun and an enjoyable all-day family event, people might get captured at a younger age. Then they will look for a team.”