Ravens selected to play against Jaguars in London in 2017. (WJZ)
Ravens fans were returning from Monday night's road loss to the New England Patriots when the National Football League announced that the team would be facing the Jacksonville Jaguars in London next fall.
The much-anticipated opportunity to watch a game in a culture-rich city increasingly embracing American football is proving an intriguing draw to Baltimore-area fans who can afford several thousand dollars for the trip.
Fans were "booking the package as we were waiting to shuttle people from the airport," said Brian Snyder, owner of BMORE Around Town, a social events company.
"The trip had been on sale for five hours and it was almost our biggest-selling Ravens trip," said Snyder, whose firm was accepting $250 deposits for four-day and seven-day London packages tentatively priced between $2,375 and $4,995 per person. "I think it comes down to people having a reason to go to London. It's one of those bucket list kinds of places."
The game date won't be publicly announced until April, but it will be either Week 3 (Sept. 24) or Week 4 (Oct. 1) at Wembley Stadium, which holds about 84,000 for NFL games and is known for its English football — aka soccer — history and sweeping overhead arch.
While fans were just hearing about the London game this week, the Ravens had enough notice to send Bob Eller, a senior vice president of operations, to London in October to survey the scene during this season's third and final NFL game in the city.
In the coming months, the Ravens say, they will be collecting information to help them decide how far in advance to fly to London and whether to request their bye week from the league immediately after the trip. There is a five-hour time difference, and the goal is to minimize jet lag.
The Ravens are among eight of the NFL's 32 clubs that have yet to play in London, although two team officials — Eller and Kevin Byrne — traveled there in 1989 for a preseason game while working for the Cleveland Browns before that club became the Ravens in 1996.
"There is a certain weight that comes to your brand," said Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president for public and community relations. "We have a good following in Europe basically because of the two Super Bowl wins. We can tell from our mail. There is a group in London who gathers and watches our games."
Plus, Byrne joked, the trip is appropriate for Baltimore because a group of actual ravens live in a specially built enclosure at the Tower of London, where they are a prime tourist attraction. According to legend, six ravens must guard the tower or the English monarchy will fall.
The Baltimore Ravens will arrive as the NFL is expanding its international presence. Next year will mark the first time that that league has scheduled four London games.
"Moving to four games feels like a milestone for us. It's half a season of home games," said Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president for international. "We'll sell essentially what we call season tickets. You have the opportunity to buy all four games. We're very pleased with the way fan demand has grown, and the fact that we've moved to four games is a real testament to that."
Information about tickets for Baltimore's game won't be available for some time.
About 90 percent of those attending previous London NFL games were United Kingdom-based fans, according to Waller. Five percent were Americans traveling overseas or already living in the United Kingdom and the other 5 percent were from elsewhere in Europe.
Last year, the NFL reached agreement with the Tottenham Hotspur Premier League soccer club to host at least two games a year at the team's new stadium in London beginning in 2018.
"The soccer field will roll out and there will be an NFL stadium underneath," Waller said.
Next year's games will be played at Wembley and Twickenham Stadium, which often hosts rugby. Along with the Ravens-Jaguars game, the New Orleans Saints will play the Miami Dolphins, the Minnesota Vikings will play the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals will face the Los Angeles Rams.
All but one of the previous London games have sold out, according to Waller. The BBC broadcasts the NFL's games in the United Kingdom — as well as the Super Bowl — live.
In the United States, TV ratings for NFL games have been down much of the season, although there have been signs of improvement since the November presidential election. But the league's popularity overseas has been a bright spot. Besides the London games, a contest last month in Mexico City sold out.
It will be the fifth straight season in which the Jaguars have hosted a game as part of their multiyear agreement with Wembley Stadium, and Jacksonville has been designated as the "home" team against the Ravens. The Ravens have an agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority preventing them from playing a home game outside M&T Bank Stadium.
The Jaguars have become a London favorite because of their frequent games there and because their owner, Pakistani-American businessman Shahid Khan, also owns a British soccer club.
There has been speculation that the NFL could one day move a team to London.
"It's our job to build demand and to make sure we have stadiums to play in," Waller said. "If the owners decide that level of demand warrants putting a team there, then we've done our job to make that possible."
While the Jaguars are welcomed by London fans, Ravens fan Jim McCain of Arbutus believes Baltimore will be well represented at Wembley.
"I'm already starting to plan my trip," said McCain, vice president of the Council of Baltimore Ravens Roosts, who called London a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity.
"I have some friends that want to go already and there is a group that plans away games that is making plans as well," McCain said. "I think Ravens fans travel very well. I put a group together and took 350 of us up to watch the [New York] Jets. We had seven buses and 350 people."
Snyder, of BMORE Around Town, said he booked 1,900 Ravens fans to travel to Dallas to watch the team against the Cowboys last month.
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He collected nearly 400 deposits for the London trip within hours of the game's announcement.
PrimeSport, the Ravens' Atlanta-based travel partner, was offering three four-night London packages including game tickets, sightseeing tours and pub parties. Estimated pricing "could be between $2395 and $2795 per person [double occupancy]," the company's website said.
The company's website was offering a hotel for fans "situated in the heart of Mayfair, overlooking Hyde Park and a short walk to Buckingham Palace." PrimeSport has booked fan travel to four out of the last six games in London.
"Based on the demand trends we are seeing from Ravens fans, we are anticipating one of the largest fan travel groups we've seen in recent history traveling to the UK," the company said.