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On the Ground in the U.K., NFL Passion Runs High

On a four-city tour of Britain this spring, the fans’ knowledge of and fervor for the American game was abundant. Logistics will remain a headache, but a permanent team in London seems increasingly likely

EDINBURGH, Scotland — We don’t know exactly when, or if, an NFL team will relocate to Great Britain, where 20 of 21 regular-season games scheduled in the last decade have been sellouts. But one thing we do know is that people here, a lot of people, know their stuff. And care.

The NFL brought a group of five current and former players to England and Scotland for four days this spring to promote the game. The education went two ways. “These people,” said one of the panelists, Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, “are unbelievable. They’re like American fans. They know so much.”

I followed the group, and engaged in the mid-April panels in London, Liverpool, Nottingham and Edinburgh, hosted by longtime British NFL host Neil Reynolds of Sky Sports. In Nottingham, one guy in the auditorium rose to ask me: “I’m a Ravens fan … Who do you think they’ll pick in the first round? Do you think Derek Barnett will still be there when they pick?” And so it went. I wasn’t sure if I was in Nottingham or New England, Edinburgh or Pittsburgh. That sounds crazy. But after listening to these fans—who paid $9 a head to attend these two-hour Q&A/entertainment soirees—for four nights, I thought that a crowd deep in the heart of Texas would not have asked more intelligent questions.

And the jerseys. I counted eight Bears jerseys in Scotland in a crowd of 900, 18 Browns jerseys in a similar crowd in Nottingham. A guy came to Edinburgh in a Thomas Davis Panthers jersey, another to London in a Jadeveon Clowney Texans jersey. Kirk Cousins signed a Kirk Cousins jersey outside the venue in Liverpool. If Miami wideout Jarvis Landry looked hard enough, he’d have seen three Jarvis Landry jerseys in the crowd in Liverpool.

At the stop here, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, I decided to stay behind at the end of the evening and ask anyone who wanted to stay to meet me to ask whatever questions they wanted. About 60 folks lingered, and we talked. I recorded their questions on my phone. In some cases, the accents made me ask them to repeat the questions. Such as: “With Jameis Winstuhn progressin’ over thuh last two yehs wuth great figuhs, and the wepuhns they just brought in with DeSean Jacksun, you think think that’s gonnuh put him up with thuh best passuhs in thuh gayem?”

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A 9-year-old-boy named Eun (pronounced “You-in”) from Gourock, Scotland, took my phone in his hands and said, in all sincerity (cute accent not included): “What’s your opinion on the leaping-over-the-center rule?”

I got 37 questions from this group of Scots. A sampling:

Kennedy from Glasgow: “Would a developmental league, like NFL Europe, help the NFL grow better young players?”

Rory from Aberdeen: “Will the hybrid defenses, the 4-2 defenses with safeties in the box, with versatile defensive players like Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron, take over?”

Ian from Edinburgh: “With all the media covering the NFL, do teams have an agenda to defeat the media, and how do you deal with that?”

Leo from East Lothian: “With the introduction of the defense-restricting rules, will football in America become Canadian-like, with all the rules favoring the offense?”

Gary from Gourock: “Should the NFL be worried about the TV ratings?”

Pete from Dundee: “Which team has the worst roster in the NFL?”

Graeme from Edinburgh: “Can the Cowboys rebuild their secondary almost from scratch?”

Cameron from East Lothian: “Giants fan—Does Brandon Marshall have enough left in the tank to have one more great year?”

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Gary from Livingston, Scotland: “Roger Goodell—has he been good for the NFL or not?”

Mark from Edinburgh: “If you could change one rule about the NFL, what would it be?”

I don’t know how many times I said to the group, “Man, that’s a really good question.” But as we parted, one of the guys, dressed in a Terrell Suggs Ravens jersey, said to me: “Well, we watch all the games. Just like you.”

He’s right. Five games a week are telecast on live on Sky Sports, and for about $150 a year fans can buy basically the same NFL Game Pass product we buy in the U.S., which also enables viewers to watch NFL Network all week. “When I go to the United States,” said Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of NFL UK, “I find the only thing the serious fan in Great Britain is missing are the NFL talk shows during the week.”

“Geography won’t stop anyone from learning the game anymore,” said Reynolds.

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The naysayers for NFL games in Europe, and certainly for an NFL team, abound. The logistics are daunting. Say a left tackle for the London franchise goes down for the season in Week 5, and the best tackle on the team’s short list is home in Stockton, Calif., when the phone rings Sunday night asking him to come in for a workout. Presumably, London has a workout workout facility and spartan staff somewhere on the Eastern seaboard (Atlanta? Orlando? Washington?), in proximity to nonstop evening flights to London. The player travels to that facility, works out late Monday afternoon, and maybe the GM and coach watch over Skype, and if they agree he should be signed, he takes the redeye to get to London by Tuesday mid-morning. Then he gets the playbook and has to learn the system in time for Wednesday practice. Fairly brutal. But possible.

“You’d have to have two centers of gravity,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s vice president for international development. “We have to solve that in some component of the [Collective Bargaining Agreement]. I don’t think there’s anything that’s insurmountable. … I only have one doubt left: Could a team play, year in and year out, and be competitive enough?”

If there’s one thing this league has proven—that these owners have proven—it’s that the NFL will chase the money. And in my opinion, the next big payday for a franchise shift, after the Rams and Chargers and Raiders, is the move to London.

Some elements are ready. The fans are—at least enough of them. The media is not; the news outlets of Fleet Street and beyond will take years to love the NFL, if they ever do, and TV ratings will be a big question mark. The NFL had to take note of the brutal drop in U.S. ratings for Premier League games this season on NBC and its affiliated networks, an 18 percent cliff-dive. The league noticed because for a while America was head over heels for Chelsea and Man U; and if America could be gaga over soccer, then couldn't the U.K. be the same over American football? Maybe the NBC ratings drop this year was due to a sleeper of a season with no drama at the end. We’ll see. But it does raise the issue of whether a country can fall in love with a foreign game.

One thing the NFL finds especially intriguing is the ability to play a game, or games, there so that the vast majority of the world’s population can see them. Thus the three early-afternoon London-time games this season (two at 2:30 p.m., the third at 1:30), out of the four the NFL has scheduled in the U.K. Those games will kick off at 9:30 a.m. Sunday in New York; in Beijing the first two will start at 9:30 p.m. Sunday and the third at 8:30 p.m.

“These people are unbelievable,” says Kurt Warner. “They know so much.”

“When you play in the afternoon in the U.K.,” Waller said, “you actually play early in America and late in Asia on the same day. I would argue that one of the reasons the EPL [English Premier League] is so popular in the Far East is they happen to play [in England] in the middle of the day on Saturday and Sunday, which means they go into Asia late on the same day Saturday and Sunday.

“One of the problems with our [U.S.-based NFL] games as they’re scheduled now is that none of them go live in China when people would be watching. But if we play a mid-day Sunday game in England, on the same day, mostly everyone in the world can watch our game live.”

There are question marks for a team in London. Huge ones, which will have to be resolved at the bargaining table three years from now when the NFL and NFLPA are deep into talks for a new CBA. There’s no doubt that the union will be concerned, as it should be, about its players being assigned to a team on a continent an ocean away. Will the London team need a salary-cap boost to pay its players more, to incentivize free agents to sign overseas? Probably. Will the NFL have to gerrymander the schedule? Probably. Road trips of three games, three games and two games, respectively, would seem fair for the London franchise, with forays of 16, 16 and nine days in the U.S. likely the most sensible as far as scheduling goes. There are other logistics—training camp, in particular—that will be a royal pain.

• WHY LONDON? AND CAN IT WORK? Jenny Vrentas’s 2014 story examining the pros and cons of the NFL in the U.K.

It probably doesn’t make the most sense to put one team in Europe and 31 in the United States. But the managing director of NFL UK, Alistair Kirkwood, said something to me in England that told me a lot. It was about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“He’s restless,” Kirkwood said. “He thinks about the future a lot. He thinks close to a generation ahead.”

Those who know Goodell, and who’ve seen the draft move to Chicago and Philadelphia and who-knows-where in the coming years, and who’ve seen the advent of weekly Thursday night games and live regular-season games on Yahoo and Twitter, and who’ve seen nothing anymore set in stone, understand exactly what Kirkwood says.

Goodell thinks: What’s the worst thing that could happen? The London franchise fails, and the NFL pulls it back to the homeland. What’s the best thing that could happen? The London franchise is wildly successful, and we put another team in Europe. Or three.

There’s no telling the future, and whether Brexit or terrorism or some other world event will intercede and make a relocation to London more problematic. But watching Goodell for the past decade—and in talking to owners bullish about a London team—it seems more like a matter of when, not if.

“I’m probably the worst at guessing,” said Kirkwood, “but if a franchise is to come, it’s probably going to be after the next CBA. My best guess is ’22 or ’23.”

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“This question’s for Kirk Cousins,” the man in the London audience said during a Q&A. “Why can’t the NFL find 32 good quarterbacks? Why is it teams like the Browns have such a hard time finding a quarterback?”

Cousins smiled. “I ask myself the same question: Why can’t there be 32 good quarterbacks on 32 teams? Maybe the same reason why, in his prime, a Wayne Rooney can’t be on every team in the Premier League.”

The question, another smart one, was par for the course here. The answer was perfect in a sports world getting smaller, voiced by an American quarterback from a small town in Michigan, answering an English chap with words any Brit would understand. From all indications, it won’t be long before it shrinks even more.

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