Our itinerary to get here was a strange one. I first drove to Orlando to meet up with the rest of my family, then caught a JetBlue flight to JFK in New York. From there, we had to collect our baggage at baggage claim, recheck it and go back through security, an inconvenience thankfully limited to the front half of our trip.
We flew in coach on American 104 to Heathrow, a flight that should have taken from 9PM Eastern until 9AM in London. Thanks to some heavy tailwinds, we arrived a half-hour early, but at the expense of most of the sleeping time possible on the flight, as the plane underwent extensive turbulence periodically as the jet stream pushed us along at an ever accelerating clip.
I arrived in London on about two hours of sleep, grabbed a new SIM card, cleared customs and embarked on the half-hour drive to our hotel in the center of the city. Since our rooms weren't yet ready, we marched the mile and change from the hotel to Buckingham Palace and caught the tail end of the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony. From there, I hoofed it back to the hotel and met up with Lew Turner to participate in a segment for his continuing coverage in London. Only after was I able to get a shower and then proceed with ever more miles of walking and sightseeing throughout the day. Now, I'm typing this up, at what would be mid-afternoon in Duval and is already very much evening here in London.
Why the laborious recounting of these details? Because throughout this process, I found myself trying to compare the experience to that undergone by traveling NFL players. In so doing, I'm left with no other reasonable conclusion than that a full slate of games in London is inevitable, if the market proves to have the appetite.
Consider the plight of the traveling Jaguars: a chartered flight direct from Jacksonville to London Gatwick and a 40 minute drive were the major barriers for players and coaches making this trip. This isn't nearly as difficult a hurdle to jump as the one regular fans face in order to simply watch the game, yet even these challenges really aren't a big deal.
Teams often fly in a day or two early when traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast or vice versa. I think the same policy would certainly prove wise here, but also believe this would be a sufficient amount of time for professional athletes provided with expedited travel options and the highest level of comfort to still be able to play at the peak of their abilities.
Even so, this doesn't hold up well over time. A Home-Away-Home-Away spurt of games would risk cumulative havoc by forcing a team to continue running back and forth. The equipment and support staff of a team playing regularly in London would have a hellish time transporting all of the materials they need back and forth each week, too. Batching games into groups of four makes some sense, but feels vaguely like some sort of competitive advantage or disadvantage and brings up an array of additional questions, such as if a US base for such a team would be required, and where it would be. Once you factor in UK tax rates, relocation carnage or the need to expand the league past a perfect set of 32 teams, NFLPA protestations and player suspicions, the factors against a London team begin to stack up.
Who said anything about a London team, though? The London market appears ripe for developing but is a burden unfit for any one franchise to carry. This should sound familiar, as it's the story of Thursday Night Football, and a similar solution is in order. Teams complain about the burden and additional risk of injury incurred by Thursday games, so the league has spread them out, with each team playing in one Thursday night match throughout the year. In exchange for this shared sacrifice, the League is able to offer a unique product that vastly increases the odds of various cable and satellite providers making its network available to viewers and is able to provide a jumpstart to ticket sales in markets where national recognition would otherwise be rare.
How I would tackle London in the long-term if I were the NFL is similar to Thursday Night Football in many respects. A typical NFL season includes eight home games. These games each obviously feature two teams. I would propose an eight game "season" at Wembley, with each game featuring two different teams. Each of the NFL's 32 teams would switch off, playing in one of these games once every two years. Each club would be designated as the home team for a London game once every four years - every other time they make the trip - equally spreading the burden/benefit of a lost home game across all franchises in a minimally invasive fashion.
These games would be played with just one or two gap weeks from roughly week 4 to week 12 of the NFL season. This would allow each team playing in London to take their bye weeks after the game, as has become standard practice, without adversely impacting the way byes are scheduled or putting any team at more of a disadvantage than they might incur normally as an effect of the standard scheduling process.
There's a growing thirst for pro football in London, but it strikes me as very similar to the thirst for Premier League in the United States: the interest isn't particularly in one team, but rather in the novelty of the game at large. There's little question in my mind that this market can sustain a full eight game slate, and a strong argument could be made to the Redzone and fantasy football crowd that Wembley would offer the best season ticket value in the league by offering something new and different every single week.
I believe the purpose of the Jaguars' four year commitment to London is to test this theory. If the Jaguars are capable of generating a more robust fanbase in the UK than is enjoyed by the League's more successful and better-known heritage teams, then perhaps this sampler package of games would prove to be the wrong approach to the London opportunity. Though I'd never bet against the likes of Shad Khan and Mark Lamping, I don't see this happening. I do think the Jaguars will greatly increase their exposure and expand their fanbase through these games, but not to such an extent that the 49ers, Cowboys, Steelers or others become footnotes compared to their English legend. Additionally, with the League now scheduling three games for 2014, it seems clear the priority is to sell professional football at large, even if it dilutes the impact one team can have.
As has so often been the case in the past, upholding the concept of Leaguethink is likely to prove the best solution. I'd be surprised if there aren't NFL season ticket holders in London 10 years down the road, but I'd be equally surprised if they featured any team name more than once a year.