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The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars had barely landed back in the United States after playing the fourth and final NFL London Series game of the season when a fresh story about establishing a franchise in London began to circulate.
Only this time, curiously, the focus of the article wasn't the Jaguars -- widely considered to be the front runner should an existing team relocate to these shores. It was the LA Chargers, formerly of San Diego, who have so far failed to win over a seemingly apathetic Los Angeles market since their move a few years ago.
Dean Spanos, the Chargers' owner, shot down the speculation as nonsense, with various theories subsequently appearing. Among them was the suggestion that the story was leaked to sharpen the minds and focus of any team genuinely considering a move to the United Kingdom, establishing there may be rivals for the opportunity.
Despite Jacksonville's long-standing commitment to playing regular season games in London -- the current contract runs through 2020 -- owner Shad Khan has repeatedly refuted the idea that his ultimate plan is to relocate, an endgame possibly weakened by his inability to successfully purchase Wembley Stadium from the FA in 2018. He's expressed firm interest in extending the agreement to play regular season games over here, and this could lead to more than one Jags game per season -- possibly in back to back weeks -- but he swats away any suggestion of a permanent move whenever he's asked, not showing his hand to the media for fairly obvious reasons. To paraphrase the old Bill Gates line about going bust: If it happens, it'll happen gradually, then suddenly.
The Chargers to London report did move the London franchise conversation forwards, though perhaps not as it initially appeared to. The fact that most commentators were more preoccupied with the validity of whether the Chargers would move (as opposed to the Jaguars) than whether the NFL would even consider enabling such a move, shows how far the project has gone since the first London game in 2007.
If a permanent London team had been suggested back then, whichever poor league employee came up with the beyond wacky idea would have been fired immediately and frogmarched down to the Comedy Store for a 10-minute open spot. It's no longer an outlandish idea. Quite the opposite, it's a very real possibility.
But does London want a franchise? This is perhaps the more pertinent question right now. The expansion to four games a year represents precisely half the volume of regular season home games a London team would play, playoffs and preseason notwithstanding. A clearly viable option for the NFL is to expand the number of games over the season, giving fans the same amount of football, just without all the complexity, baggage and risk factor of relocation.
And it would be relocation. It's highly unlikely the NFL would consider expansion beyond the current 32 teams in the foreseeable future, and besides, an expansion team, by design, is always a weak starter for a few years, needing to build a roster from scratch. Not to mention the added challenge of selling the concept of moving to London to players -- not as uniformly appealing as one may think. And a new team that's losing most weeks isn't exactly a strong sell either.
The ongoing negotiations surrounding the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) where the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) collaborate on a labour agreement that looks at money, health and safety, and other fundamentals may throw up the addition of an extra regular season game (or two) with many in the league and team ownership keen on expanding the season to 17 or 18 games. If this does happen, it will clearly help rationalise the drive for further games to be played overseas, though ultimately, if the de facto home team finds it more profitable to play a game in London, they'll take the opportunity irrespectively.
Indeed, sacrificing the home game to play is one of the key reasons that the Green Bay Packers are the only NFL franchise not to have played over here. The most popular NFL teams -- including the Packers, the Cowboys and the Patriots -- won't entertain the idea of relinquishing a home game because they don't need to, so their appearances overseas depend on a fortuitous mixing and matching of schedules, as well as their opponents doing what the above franchises aren't prepared to. The introduction of mandatory appearances in an International Series game for franchises enjoying new stadia improves the range of teams giving up a home game, and there is clearly appetite from the league to bring the Packers over and complete the set. But their continued absence, has, understandably, frustrated fans in the UK.
And despite the league viewing the London series as a success, frustration is a word that's creeping in more and more when NFL in London is discussed amongst UK fans. When the schedules are announced, the NFL is often criticised for a lack of elite matchups, although quite often some of the games that appear the weakest on paper end up being the most exciting, or surprising. But another cause for frustration is the large-looming spectre of reselling sites, with many fans failing during the official issuing of tickets and having to pay inflated prices to third parties. This is by no means unique to the NFL, but no less painful for a loyal fanbase, many of whom have supported the sport for a long time, since mainstream appeal and demand was less apparent.
The inclusion of Tottenham Hotspurs' stadium in the London Series mix, whilst highly impressive, created further issues, with long-standing season ticket holders having to reapply for games held there due to the significantly smaller capacity in comparison to Wembley.
NFL UK is visible in confronting these issues and accepts the challenges that it faces as the process evolves. Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood, whom I interviewed on my podcast this week, doesn't duck the difficult questions and typically offers rational and self-aware responses, as he did in our chat.
But the league does need to tread carefully here as the popularity of the game grows. Courting new fans is admirable, and necessary, but shouldn't come at the cost of the grassroots, hardcore fanbase. As the great Leo McGarry opined in The West Wing: "You dance with the one that brung ya!" This is particularly true with a sport like American Football, which in the UK has always fostered an inclusive collection of fans, who are often up at all hours watching their favourite sport. It's a point JJ Watt made in reverse when discussing his love of (Premier League) football from afar. He sees the connection of an unconventional sport's fanbase.
Inevitably, as Kirkwood and his team realise, there will be critics, and it's inevitable that any project like this -- one without precedent -- will be flawed to the degree that not everyone can be placated. The continued opportunity to be able to watch games up close and personal is celebrated by much of the UK fanbase, as is the growing access to content across multiple platforms.
Nevertheless, it's a balance that is pivotal going forwards: retaining the appeal for the longer standing fanbase, making sure they're appeased and looked after, without creating overwhelming insularity that facilitates a lack of growth.
The reach of a London game extends far beyond the UK, with fans travelling from all over Europe, as well as further afield. Indeed, there has been renewed discussion of games being held in Germany, possibly Japan, and of course Mexico is already in the mix.
International expansion doesn't automatically equate to London expansion, but it's likely we'll be seeing more, not less, of America's Game.