Miami Dolphins

Is London calling? Lots of speculation about a British NFL team, but few answers

Fans enter the Wembley Stadium complex for the Baltimore Ravens-Jacksonville Jaguars game in London on Sept. 24, 2017.
Fans enter the Wembley Stadium complex for the Baltimore Ravens-Jacksonville Jaguars game in London on Sept. 24, 2017. John Curley Center

The backstory behind Derek Nutley’s NFL fandom is as old as the faded Dan Marino jersey he wears.

As the middle-aged Brit scurried through a blocks-long tailgate scene an hour before the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens kicked off the 10th annual International Series last Sunday, he stopped to share his first memories of the American league.

“Before the Berlin Wall came down, you had ... radio for the [U.S.] troops in Europe and I would always have an American football game on in the early evening,” said Nutley, who will make the 60-mile trip from Newbury to London with his wife again this Sunday to catch his team — the Dolphins — take on New Orleans at Wembley Stadium.

“So we used to tune into the radio and listen to that before live football was ever shown.”

How much have things changed? These days, the NFL says football is the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom.

By the end of this season, 26 of the 32 NFL teams will have played a regular-season game in London since Miami lost to the New York Giants in the opener of the International Series back in 2007.

NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood said growing the fan base overseas was the NFL’s initial goal when it began the International Series.

Now, the conversation has shifted to whether London would be able to sustain a franchise full time through expansion or relocation.

For fans like Nutley and fellow Briton Martin Lyddon, the NFL took a big step when the UK’s Channel 4 began showing week-old highlights in the 1980s.

But staying up to date was still a challenge. Nutley opted for the Armed Forces Radio, which had such a weak signal that he had to hang the radio outside his window for a better connection.

Even then, the game’s broadcast was interrupted by interference from other stations.

Meanwhile, Lyddon cringes as he describes the now-defunct teletext service he and his buddies used to get NFL scores.

“We’d wake up on a Monday morning and we had a thing called Ceefax,” Lyddon said at an NFL fan event, dressed in Dolphins gear from head to toe, including a pair of orange and green flip flops barely suited for chilly September weather in London. “And the only way we could get the result was by putting it up on the screen.”

An announced 84,592 fans made it out for last Sunday’s game, an International Series record.

The league has sold out 20 of 21 games in London, including the four to be played this season.

The exception came in 2011, a year in which ticket sales were delayed because of an offseason lockout in the NFL. Still, 76,981 fans came out to the Bears-Buccaneers tilt in London.

Average attendance of the three International Series games in 2016, two of which took place at Wembley and the other at Twickenham Stadium, reached just below 81,000. Though only three games, that would have ranked second behind the Dallas Cowboys in NFL’s average attendance.

“I always look around the NFL now and some places don’t have that atmosphere and that fan support we saw at Wembley Stadium and we’ll see at Twickenham Stadium as well,” NFL Britain Sky Sports pundit Neil Reynolds said.

“I think that British fans deserve a franchise. When I look at empty seats in Los Angeles, or teams that are struggling to fill their stadium, I think, why don’t we give them a franchise? We do what so many teams aspire to do in the NFL, and that’s pack up a stadium. Geography shouldn’t be a barrier from that. We should have a team. I think the NFL will seriously look at putting a team in London.”

Unlike America, NFL TV ratings continue to soar in Great Britain. While Sky Sports and BBC, the two primary networks that air games, keep their ratings numbers private, Reynolds said viewership is up 60 percent to 70 percent on Sky from last season.

If it were up to him, the NFL would have a team in London next year.

Reynolds said he realistically expects a franchise will touch down in England within the next five years, coinciding with the next collective bargaining agreement between the owners and NFL Players Association. The team’s landing spot: a 61,000-seat stadium set to break ground next summer.

The NFL invested $12.8 million, or a little more than 1 percent of the cost, into building Tottenham Stadium, which will soon be home to the Premier League’s Hotspur soccer team. The stadium, which features NFL locker rooms and a retractable grass field with an artificial surface beneath for American football, will host at least two NFL games for the next 10 seasons.

All of the pieces seem to be in place.

But for every Odell Beckham Jr. and Tom Brady jersey floating around the United Kingdom there’s a large contingent of those who shut down the notion of the NFL in Europe.

Two British brothers in their 20s were chastised by their buddies for attending last Sunday’s game. One of their friends asked them why they would even bother going to an NFL game.

“It’s not as mainstream as other sports, like soccer, cricket and rugby,” Matthew Jarvis said.

Doug Allen, a former Buffalo Bills linebacker who spent 25 years with the NFLPA as an assistant executive director from 1982 to 2007, said it’s essential for the league to put a franchise overseas. And while he applauds the league’s progress in Europe, he doesn’t think it’s close to sustaining a team abroad.

“I think it’s hard to sell that sport when you don’t have any players from other countries, when no one in those other countries play the sport at a young age, when you don’t have teams over there,” said Allen, now a Penn State professor specializing in labor employment relations.

“There’s just no investment on the part of those folks.”

The NFL needs to quickly get to the point where a team is financially viable, can afford travel expenses and work out scheduling with other teams, Allen added. He later indicated the league’s long-term success will hinge on gaining an international TV audience. Like the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL has a saturated market in the United States.

Aside from the scheduling and traveling logistics of placing an NFL team in London, the league also has to wait and see if the United Kingdom eventually splits from the European Union.

“It changes the dynamic,” said Kirkwood, the NFL UK managing director. “European Union labor laws make it very challenging if you were to put a franchise in Europe as it currently stands because our draft system and how we hire.”

He said Brexit could mean “a lot less red tape.”

For the thousands of fans who will make the trip from all over to see the Dolphins take on the Saints in London, there will be plenty of Brits unaware of the American spectacle taking place at Wembley. The NFL is barely on their radar.

For others, like Dolphins fans Nutley and Lyddon, football has become a way of life.

“I do think that the expectation was that we’d see a team before 2020,” Nutley said. “And at the moment you’ve got a lot of support and I think you need to put one in before that support maybe dwindles.”

Mark Fischer is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. The Curley Center is partnering with the Miami Herald to supplement coverage of the Dolphins in London.