Saturday, 27 July 2013

The London Jaguars?

It’s been a slow news week in sport. The third test of this increasingly one-sided Ashes series does not start until next week and the transfer saga outlined here is no closer to resolution, so I have decided to focus today on football from across the pond.

A much under reported story this summer was the new ownership of Fulham Football Club. Mohammed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods and the Paris Ritz, had been the owner, since 1997 when he bought the club outright for £6.25m.[1] Fulham quickly climbed the leagues and became a Premier League side in 2001 under the guidance of Jean Tigana. Since then Fulham has become a solid and occasionally spectacular mid-table club with a great home record, mainly due to the cramped and unusual nature of Craven Cottage, often mercurial players and a dubious away record.

Al Fayed is the one with the comedy moustache. No help?
Khan is the one on the right.
Al Fayed is now 84 and had personally invested, as of 2011, £187m in interest free loans to Fulham. In order to recoup his money, (and by all accounts make a profit) Al Fayed sold his stake to Shahid Khan, an auto-parts billionaire of Pakistani origin, now based in Jacksonville, USA. On the face of it this merely appears to be two foreign billionaires exchanging an expensive plaything, a toy for their egos.[2]

Except this is not Khan’s first foray into sports ownership: In January 2012 Khan acquired the Jacksonville Jaguars, an NFL team, from Wayne Weaver. On the face of it these two facts are unremarkable. The Glazers own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United. Randy Lerner owns Aston Villa and used to own the Cleveland Browns. Stan Kroenke, the largest shareholder in Arsenal, owns the St Louis Rams and a myriad of sports franchises in Colorado. It is not the dual ownership that is remarkable; it is the deal that Khan signed with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell immediately after gaining ownership of the Jacksonville Jaguars that is significant. In August 2012, less than six months after taking ownership of the Jaguars, Khan announced they had finalized a deal to play one regular season home game each year between 2013 and 2016 at Wembley Stadium.
Roger Goodell. So unpopular he has a meme.

What’s the big deal about one game some people will ask? Remember the outcry when the Premier league suggested a 39th game to be played abroad every year? This is a whole lot worse. The NFL has a 16 game regular season, eight of which are played at home. Giving up one game a season for the next four seasons is a huge sacrifice for the fan-base. The average fan will now only get to see his team play live 7 times in a year, a reduction of 12.5%. If I was a Jaguars fan I would be angry about this for one season, for four seasons it would like being given a shit sandwich. So why has Khan slapped his own fan-base in the face?

Maurice Jones Drew. Running back and
the Jaguars best player. Rushing
touchdowns last season? 1.
Khan claims that the decision to play in London is to increase the fan-base of the Jaguars. This is not a wholly unreasonable argument as Jacksonville is only the third largest city in the State of Florida (behind Miami and Tampa). Though Jacksonville is a relatively large city of 775,000 people it only has a small area of suburbs, making Jacksonville a small market team in comparison to the larger metropolis’ that dominates US sport. In order to increase their market share the Jaguars do need to get creative. Playing in Toronto, Canada, has helped the Buffalo Bills increase their revenue and fan-base by becoming more of a regional team. The Jaguars could potentially think about playing games in Mexico or Puerto Rico given the number of Hispanic residents of Florida. Instead Khan has volunteered his team to be the resident home team in London, on the face of it a vast untapped market full of potential Jaguar fans.

Except the Jaguar’s fan-base is exceptionally unlikely to increase substantially by playing in the UK for two major reasons. Firstly the Jags currently suck. They tied for the worst record in the NFL last season and have the worst cumulative record in the NFL over the last three seasons. It is highly unlikely that a team is going to gain many new fans in the UK by repeatedly playing terrible football in front of them. Secondly, the fans that go to watch the NFL games in London almost all have a team already. On game day Wembley is littered with people in shirts of teams that aren’t playing, with people mostly attending due to a love of the sport rather than an affiliation with the teams actually playing. Both of these problems are widely documented and this helps to disprove the theory that increasing the fan-base, whatever Khan has said, is the reasoning behind the Jaguars London trips.

In reality it appears that Khan is loading things up for a run at the London Jaguars.[3] The new links to Fulham and London will help Khan to pull in sponsorship for the new team and will help him build contacts to do business in the UK. The Jaguars trips to London have nothing to do with strengthening the Jaguars brand, rather they are to reinforce our familiarity with their players, as they will be the only holdovers from the Jacksonville incarnation of the team. The team will be repackaged and redesigned, with new kit (uniforms), club badges (logos) and nickname. Presumably a PR company will be paid millions to come up with a name that is both forceful and British, something that could be done by a small child, (or me or you, any suggestions?).[4]

Just buy out the ice hockey team and
you are away!
A franchise in London isn’t just the pipedream of Shahid Khan either. The NFL actively wants this to happen. Everything the league has done in the last few years signals that this is no passing fancy– including increasing regular season games to two annually and making the Jaguars annual tenants. Roger Goodell, the League Commissioner (a position created by the 32 owners to run the league in such a way as to make as much money as possible for the said owners) has created an International Committee to provide detailed updates on the NFL in London. Committee member Eric Grubmann is reported to have said that, “We want to have a team in London – Our goal is to get a team there and make this happen.”[5]

Why is the NFL so keen on this idea? The domestic US market is tapped out. The TV deals are signed through 2020 and the only large market without a team is LA.[6] The Buffalo Bills are expanding into Canada and occasionally play Mexico as well. That leaves only London. Last time I looked at how the Premier League teams have used the Far East to expand their fan-base and revenue streams; the NFL is viewing London in the same way.[7] At this point it is important to note that the NFL is a profit sharing League. Any money that the league/individual team makes goes in the pot, which is then divided up equally at the end of the season. A strong London franchise with its potentially massive marketing, merchandizing and television deals is worth a great deal more to the league and its owners than the small market of Jacksonville.[8]

Rather than deprive Jacksonville of its team, why not expand the amount of teams to include London and LA? Again this idea of profit sharing comes in. The owners don’t want their piece of the pie cut up any smaller than it already is. Therefore any way of making the overall pie larger, as a European franchise definitely would, is much more appealing.

There is no denying that there are potential problems with a franchise in London. The most critical of these would be a lack of fan interest. The NFL certainly does not see this as a problem at the moment. Some argue that this is just novelty factor and that London is still not ready for a franchise. If this were the case that novelty should be wearing off by now as this is the seventh season in which regular season games have been played in London. All of the Wembley matches so far have been sellouts and this looks set to continue this year despite the pressure of adding a second game. Commissioner Goodell is so confidant of success that he has recently put forward the idea of a third game being played in London, potentially with the Jaguars playing host again.[9] It does not seem that a lack of interest will stop London from playing host to a franchise.

Another huge potential problem is US players not wanting to live in the UK. Andrew Whitworth, offensive lineman and Players Union rep of the Cincinnati Bengals threatened to retire if he landed on a team that moved to London. As the most connected player in regards to how the team feels due to his position in the players association his words carry weight when he says that, "I don't see that a lot of guys would want to do that," he said. "I don't see any players that would enjoy that. Sure, you may find a handful of guys that say, 'Oh, hey, that'd be cool,' but the rest of them wouldn't."[10]

This is a massive problem that it will be difficult to overcome. Many of the NFL’s signings come from free agency and the draft. If draft picks won’t sign for the team and they are unable to recruit in free agency it will be almost impossible for a London franchise to field a competitive team in the long term. Continuously poor on-field results could easily lead to fans growing disillusioned with the team and the NFL losing its hard gained goodwill. Of all the problems facing a London franchise this is the most insoluble, as there appears to be no obvious solution. Throwing money at the problem (maybe a bonus paid by the NFL to anyone who signs for the team in free agency?) could persuade some players but the foreign nature of the UK could really put off a large proportion of players.

Some people have raised the difficulty of travel but I don’t really see this as much of an issue. The league would make scheduling as friendly on the team and their opponents as easy as possible in order to make this work. In fact to make this work In addition the flight from London to New York is not that much longer than San Francisco to the Big Apple but nobody is complaining about that are they?[11] This is definitely the easiest problem to solve though.

"D..... Fence" clap, clap, clap. Rubbish. Just rubbish.   
A London franchise is a ‘when’ not an ‘if.’ Will it be the Jaguars? I think it is incredibly likely. Will they be supported? A straw poll of friends interested in the NFL (6 people) suggested that half would support a new London team, 33% would look out for them as a second team and one person would love to hate them. Given the love/hate relationship Brits usually have with our sports teams this seems to be a perfect balance! I am all for change and new things, I will use the terminology of the sport I am following even if I wince when they pronounce route (root) as rowt. I will hold big ridiculous signs so inane that remind me of wrestling. I will shout pathetic chants like, “lets go Jaguars!” over and over again with all the wit of a 4 year old.[12] I just won’t call football, Soccer.

[1] Technically a shell company in the tax haven of Bermuda called Mafco owned the club but it was controlled and owned by Al Fayed.

[2] Khan’s fortune is estimated to be $2.5b. By contrast Al Fayed’s is a mere $1.2b...

[3] If they kept the name, which I doubt, think of the sponsorship deal they could get with Jaguar!

[4]No points for the sillynannies... tut tut. It is almost certain they would change the name of the franchise on arrival in London. Off the top of my head, I like the British Blitz or the London Bulldogs. Suggestions in the comments please.

[5] According to NFL insider Jason La Canfora on CBS sports.

[6] It’s always been a basketball and college football town, hence why the city lost its Rams franchise to St. Louis in 1994. In some justification California still has the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.

[7] The Premier League teams have also done the same in the US selling out 80,000 seat stadiums at $100 a ticket for glorified run-arounds.

[8] One of the smaller markets, maybe San Diego, Oakland or St. Louis may be on its way to LA for the same reasons.



[11] Actually some people are. There is some statistical analysis that early kickoff games played in the west are advantageous to the home team… Maybe a British team would do well at home but struggle with the time difference away.

[12] This is an area we Brits can teach the Yanks a thing or two. American chants are worse than terrible. If we had our own team, British chants would pretty soon be the best in the league, no argument.