With Ravens game, NFL sees opportunity in London, land of the other football

The trends facing the NFL could be worrisome: TV ratings dipped last season, pundits are complaining about low scoring this year and youth participation is declining amid concerns about the sport’s potential for injury.

But even as its home-field advantage grows tenuous, the league is gaining a foothold in the land of the other football (aka soccer) — the United Kingdom.

The U.K. — and overseas markets in general — represent a Red Zone opportunity for the NFL: a legitimate chance for a score.

As the Ravens prepare to play a game Sunday in London for the first time, a league executive touted the growing number of American football fans in Britain and dared to imagine that an NFL team could one day locate there and consistently command attention alongside soccer, tennis and cricket.

To be sure, there are issues — the long flights from the United States and the five-to-eight-hour time differences between Great Britain and the U.S. mainland. The Ravens game against the Jacksonville Jaguars kicks off at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time — before the sun even rises in California.

“Is it ideal? No. I would hope that a lot of that could be managed,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international and events.

“If the UK fan base is big enough and passionate enough, they will want and deserve the right to have their own team,” Waller said. “I make no bones about it. I believe the best experience for any fans in any sport is when you have your own team. That’s why we went back to Los Angeles.”

This season marks the first time the league has scheduled four London games. The Ravens’ contest against the Jaguars — who have become a London favorite after playing at Wembley Stadium the past four seasons — is the first.

There is also a November game in Mexico City between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots.

All but one of the previous games in England have sold out. The U.K.’s Super Bowl audience has grown more than 75 percent in the last decade and Sunday viewership of NFL games has more than doubled, according to the league. The BBC broadcasts the NFL’s games in the United Kingdom — as well as the Super Bowl — live.

“It’s an emerging market for American football, the games sell out quickly, and the U.K. is a market with smart, dedicated sports fans,” said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for IMRE, the Baltimore communications and marketing firm. “The NBA for years has been growing its popularity abroad — especially in Asia — and the NFL is wise to continue to develop their own international growth strategy.”

But Saler also identified obstacles, including a potential “travel nightmare” and whether U.K. fans would identify with a local team containing few if any English players.

The league recently began an “International Player Pathway” program to help develop European players. The four teams in the NFC South division received permission this season to each carry an extra international player on their practice squads who isn’t permitted to be activated for games. Three players are from the United Kingdom — one was a star rugby player — and one is from Germany.

About 90 percent of those attending previous London NFL games were English fans, according to the league. Five percent were Americans traveling overseas or already living in the United Kingdom and the other five percent were from elsewhere in Europe.

While the NFL still posts strong television and attendance numbers in the United States, it could be facing an imminent choice between “do we just hang on for dear life or do we try to really go global?” said Matt Bowers, a sports management expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

TV ratings tumbled early last season — some analysts pointed to the nonstop presidential election coverage — before rebounding somewhat later on. Scoring is down considerably in the first two weeks of this season, including a game in which neither the Carolina Panthers nor Buffalo Bills managed a touchdown.

The biggest looming issue may be about the sport’s long-term impact on the health of its players. A growing list of players have been diagnosed posthumously with a degenerative disease following repeated blows to the head.

Seeking to improve players’ health and its own image, the NFL is trying to curtail hits that cause concussions or other harm. Youth football leagues, responding to declines in participation, have limited contact in practice, emphasized proper tackling techniques and experimented with rules changes.

“If I’m the NFL looking at participation, looking at ratings, I’m seeing this may not be the ever-expanding pie we thought it was a few years ago,” Bowers said. “You can definitely see they are planting these seeds and hoping to grow a market where they can feel like it may be viable to make that jump.”

The NFL works hard at putting on a spectacle in London. Pregame acts before the games have featured the rock band Def Leppard, singer Robin Thicke and the Ohio State University marching band.

After a 2015 game, Robert Booth, a London-based reporter for The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, wrote: “The electric atmosphere in the nailbiting match begged the question: is America’s favorite game finally on the verge of a British breakthrough?”

A new London franchise or existing-team relocation would require the approval of the NFL’s owners.

While no such move is planned, Waller has considered the logistics.

He said the schedule could be structured to minimize travel between continents. “Maybe play a two-or-three-game stretch in the U.K. and a two-or-three-game stretch in the U.S.,” he said.

The games’ start times could be more problematic. The contests could be played Sunday night, creating a convenient afternoon time slot in much of the United States. But the league says Britain doesn’t historically play sports on Sunday evenings.

The Ravens, who planned to leave for London on Thursday, have long been considering strategies for adjusting to play in a different time zone.

“We'll try to get our guys on London time as much as we can,” coach John Harbaugh said early in the week. “We have a plan for all that. We practiced every day at training camp at 8:45, so 9:30 is just 45 minutes later. We think we'll be ready to go."

The Ravens entered the season among eight of the 32 clubs that had yet to play in London. The New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins in the league’s first international game in 2007.

“Having the Ravens come will mean a lot — that another team is coming for the first time,” Waller said.

The team says it has a European fan base — it’s not certain how large — partly as the result of winning the Super Bowl to cap the 2012 season.

“The 2012 playoff run was the first time that we got the playoffs broadcast over here in Germany,” said Chris Proctor, who became a Ravens fan then and follows the team from afar. He said he “loved the jerseys, loved the way the Ravens played” and appreciated that the club is named for a mythical bird in an Edgar Allan Poe poem.

“My blood turned purple,” he said. “The London game is the first time I have the chance to see the Ravens live in a stadium.”

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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