Later today, the NFL season gets back into full swing, while tomorrow morning at 10am more tickets go on sale for this year’s NFL International Series game at Wembley between the St Louis Rams and the New England Patriots.
The BBC’s decision to show Monday Night Football live on its interactive service, Sky’s renewed commitment to multiple Sunday games and Channel 4’s reuniting of the legend that is Mike Carlson with his liveliest sparring partner, Nat Coombs, who has been anchoring BBC Radio 5 Live’s excellent coverage means there are now loads of different ways to catch some live gridiron in the UK. It all comes in the wake of the success story of the NFL’s bridgehead in London, established in 2007 with the first annual game at Wembley Stadium. Progress with that fixture had been steady and sure each year until the St Louis Rams announced recently that, although they would still “host” the Patriots at Wembley this October, they were abandoning their commitment to remain our “home” team for the following two seasons. A subsequent press release declared that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be taking over that mantle and even committing to four years instead of three.
Though few saw it coming, the news of St Louis backtracking is arguably less surprising than their original announcement of the project in the first place back in January. Certainly there is a sense that the NFL wants to move on from having an annual “one-off” game to identifying their own long term Team GB, but the St Louis Rams were never top of the list of suspects. The determining factor seemed to be the vision of their owner, and Arsenal football club’s majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke who said at the time:
This is a great platform to showcase the city of St. Louis to London and the UK…. We’ve seen first hand the increased popularity of the NFL not only in London but throughout Europe. To play a role in that growth over the next three years will be incredible.
In retrospect, that final word looks unfortunate.
The Rams were once based in Los Angeles, a massive potential market without a team for twenty years now, and some observers felt that their London plans were partially a signal to the authorities in St Louis to grant the team an upgrade in stadium facilities or watch them walk to California in 2014. Rams executive vice-president Kevin Demoff claimed that making Wembley a one-off adventure after all was actually because not enough headway was being made on these upgrade plans and also that the London issue had caused confusion amongst fans and onlookers about the club’s objectives. This in turn might have hampered the club’s urgent rebuilding process on the field and maybe even adversely affected Kroenke’s many other business interests in his home state of Missouri.
The Rams, nevertheless, are still coming this October to fulfil their commitment for this season and this will certainly present a challenge for Alistair Kirkwood, Managing Director of NFL UK, who will need all the sure-footedness he has demonstrated in establishing the NFL over here in recent years to generate a hometown welcome for the Rams given their change of heart and their significantly more popular opposition.
He will at least be encouraged by the positive reaction generated by the speed and conviction of Jacksonville’s interest in taking over. Their former owner, Wayne Weaver, had himself grown used to questions about relocating to Los Angeles given disappointing attendances at Jaguar home games. A few months ago he finally sold the club on to Shahid Khan, an Illinois-based businessman who hails originally from Lahore in Pakistan. Khan, who made his fortune in manufacturing car bumpers, may privately be particularly pleased at the turn of events as in 2010 he was only thwarted from taking over the Rams when existing shareholder Kroenke exercised an option to match his bid. Publicly, Khan is certainly sounding as upbreat about his London commitment as Kroenke did:
The Jacksonville Jaguars will be a bold and ambitious NFL franchise. Playing a home game in London over four seasons is consistent with our vision to introduce and grow the Jaguars brand globally… This is a priceless opportunity to share the business, tourism and lifestyle story of Jacksonville with international audiences.
Those of you wishing to embark on this journey a year ahead of time may be interested to know that Jacksonville, whose city motto is “Where Florida begins”, lies only 25 miles from the state border with Georgia, but is the most populous (820,000) and extensive city in the Sunshine State and is a major port hosting several large military facilities. The bands Lynyrd Skynrd (famous for “Free Bird”) and Limp Bizkit (“Take a Look Around” from Mission Impossible: II) both originated in Jacksonville, singer-songwriter Gary U.S. Bonds was born there and Ray Charles lived and played there early in his career. Fijian Golfer Vijay Singh lives there now and actress Ashley Greene (Alice Cullen in the Twilight films) grew up in Jacksonville, as did home-schooled NFL cultural and quarterbacking phenomenon Tim Tebow.
Tebow these days finds himself playing for New York’s Jets rather than the Jaguars, who sadly have had only limited success during their 19 year history. However, with Khan overseeing a new coaching staff working with some promising young players such as wide receiver Justin Blackmon as well as veterans like recently reconciled star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, maybe the Wembley experience will help to begin a turnaround in their fortunes.
St Louis Rams play New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium on Sunday 28 October at 5pm. Tickets from £17.50.