As Washington and the Bengals gave London both its first overtime and tie to close out the 17th International Series game in the UK, the NFL's 15-year plan to put a franchise in the capital lurched into its final third.
Mark Waller – the NFL executive in charge of the league's British expansion – told Sky Sports News last month that there will "absolutely" be a permanent team in London by 2022. It's reached the point where asking about it is almost a throwaway question during interviews with visiting players, coaches, and legends, who are all very good at giving the canned response about the great support from British fans, and that it would be very exciting for the game.
Unfortunately for the league, these feelings of hope for a London team aren't echoed among the people who matter the most in all of this: British NFL fans. Talk to them about the prospect of a franchise and the reaction – much like a kid at Christmas who's given an expensive but naff gift by an overly proud aunt or uncle – is often a forced smile to mask awkwardness.
Put simply, most British fans don't want one. Over 60% would rather keep the International Series games over having their own franchise, while under 15% would switch support from their current team to a London side.
I have spent many hours before each London game bothering fans outside of the stadium, and I'm used to hearing people talk about not being sold on the idea of a franchise. This year I brought along a survey – which also did the rounds on social media for some balance – to quantify it (results should be considered with a 5% margin of error). It's by no means definitive, but the indication is clear that the fans aren't ready to give up their International Series games any time soon.
Of those I spoke to, over 20% said they'd simply not support the idea of a London team, while only 15% said they'd switch from their current team to fully back a London franchisee. The rest either didn't care, or said they'd follow a London team as a back up to the one they're already invested in.
It does need to be said at this point that American football in the UK and Ireland is immensely popular, and if managed correctly will only become more so. The statement that London does not want, or should not have, American football in its future would be utterly foolish. Of the people I spoke to, over half had been fans for at least a decade and nearly 45% had been to at least four games. We love the sport, but we love it in our own way.
When people talk about the NFL and London, they focus on the distance being what is holding the capital's assimilation into the league back. It's viewed as a logistical problem, not a cultural one. But the truth is that the NFL has never dealt with a market quite like London before.
Take, for instance, the sea of jerseys you see around the stadium before games. American fans there think we're absolutely crazy, and usually say something along the lines of how they'd never even consider wearing a Spurs shirt to go and watch Everton vs. Manchester City. In London, though, it's a part of the supporter culture, and a big intangible problem for the NFL.
Brits have intense emotional bonds with their adopted U.S. side. When you ask fans how they fell for their team, their eyes light up in a way that suggests they're passionate about the topic. You'll usually get to hear a story about the first time they stayed up half the night to watch a game, and something about a team snares them. Sometimes they pick a team based on a romantic early experience with America: a Giants jersey brought back from a holiday in New York, or a relative who lives in Pittsburgh and brings over Steelers gear. Or sometimes watching Ace Ventura is enough to make a Dolphins fan...
Fans in many colours at the second of this year's Wembley games // Photo by Ben Halls
These are not the kinds of bonds that the NFL will easily break if they want more than 15% of people to get behind a franchise. People who adopted the Lions through pity when they went 0-16, listened to Montana and Rice for the 49ers as kids, or fell in love with the history of Lambeau Field and the Packers, won't give that up because a team is plonked in their town.
It's an entirely different problem to other markets. Mark Waller will "always compare [London] to the LA experience" in terms of putting a team here. The NFL didn't have a team in Los Angeles for 20 years: the Rams moved on to St Louis in 1985, only to head back to LA this season. It's not a bad comparison, as LA is a nomadic city where people are used to watching a range of games rather than supporting a single home team. It too has fans who cheer for the teams they like for emotional, not geographical, reasons.
But, there is one big difference: American football is already popular in LA.
While the New York Times were writing about how "LA has 32 home teams" they found that 18 of the top-20 TV broadcasts in the city over a few weeks were NFL games. To put it in comparison, that's up there with Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing in terms of popularity. Here, sport – predominantly thanks to the Great Paywall of Sky Sports – doesn't even come remotely close. The most popular sporting event on TV during the last week that figures were available was the Liverpool vs. Manchester United game, in primetime on a Monday evening. It picked up 1.97 million viewers, about the same as an episode of Great Continental Railway Journeys (1.8m) and less than Grand Designs (2.17m). Needless to say, the NFL doesn't even place on any top ratings tables in the UK.
It is a simple fact that when sports disappear behind the Sky paywall they take a huge hit in popularity. Just ask Formula 1, boxing, golf, cricket, and the rest. While many fans are happy with how much American football they watch (just over 35%), almost 20% of fans would watch more, but can't thanks to the cost of subscriptions. This could explain why over 25% of fans surveyed illegally stream games as a part of their viewing schedule, the exact same amount of people who legally stream the Thursday Twitter broadcast.
Over 75% of fans agree that the NFL should be making sure that there is a full game live on free-to-air television again, available to anyone to watch, to attract fans. The NFL may have hit a jackpot with a highlights show drawing young viewers in after Match of the Day, but nothing has historically brought new fans in like being able to watch the full drama of a game unfold.
When asked about our feedback from British fans, the NFL was understandably coy.
"NFL UK conduct extensive fan research throughout the International Series Games in London as we strive to give UK fans the best possible game day experience. The demand for the game is clear and we have seen significant growth since the league arrived in 2007 – not only in terms of fans but participation too," an NFL UK spokesperson told VICE Sports.
"This year we were able to reward our incredible UK fans for their passion and support by adding a new stadium experience at Twickenham as well as featuring at least three teams that have not previously played a regular-season game in London," they added.
To bang on the obvious drum again, it is clear that British NFL fans are passionate and want the game on these shores. Equally, it would be foolish to take the franchise option off the table. But with only 15% of fans surveyed ready to get fully behind a London team, 20% not wanting one at all, and over 60% of fans wishing the International Series would continue – and expand – the league needs to look hard at its plan to "absolutely" put a team here in six years. There's plenty they can still do instead that doesn't risk all their good work so far.
They can expand the games, both in London and around the UK and Ireland. Scottish fans would love a game at Murrayfield, as would Irish supporters at Croke Park. Add those on to the expanding London games, and you could get the eight games here a franchise would bring in – along with the eight morning games and their advertising revenue for U.S. broadcasters.
They can expand the fan base, taking live games out from behind the paywall, which strangles so many fringe sports, and allow more fans to discover this wonderful game.
And, most importantly, they can carry on letting British fans support the sport they love in the way that they have organically developed: hanging out on Wembley Way with a few beers, happily chatting to other fans in matching jerseys, calling Patriots fans glory boys, and looking pitifully on at Browns jerseys. Keep letting them slap on fancy dress, cheer on whoever they want, and hold an impromptu Americana festival.
Brits love the game – but we love the game as we know and love it. And that does not include cheering for a home team
At least, not yet.