Way Offsides, Five-Meter Penalty

September 03, 2012

Hard as it is to believe, as we draft our fantasy teams and fire up our flat screens in the U.S., there are still segments of the world that are not entirely in thrall to the NFL. The league is doing everything it can to remedy that, including continuing its annual tradition of playing one regular-season game in London, a way of helping the British realize how empty their lives are without an appreciation of the nickel defense. It's missionary work, really.

Every year since 2005, two teams have done their best to act as though they're thrilled to upset their body clocks, fly for upwards of 15 hours round-trip and forgo the revenue from one fewer home game in order to play before fans who aren't entirely sure what they're watching. The players dutifully make the trip, like kids who have been sent to see their Aunt Betty and told to be polite, but it's fairly easy to see that behind those smiles, they consider it a chore to play across the pond. The Rams—pitted against the Patriots at Wembley Stadium on Oct. 28—had pledged to play in London during each of the next two seasons as well, before they apparently came to their senses and withdrew from the agreement. Team executives said that the franchise had to concentrate on its stadium lease in St. Louis. They might as well have said they suddenly remembered that, um, there's this thing that they, uh, forgot they had to do in 2013 and '14.

But the Jaguars stepped up last week to do more than take the Rams' place, agreeing to play a home game in London for four consecutive years. "The big issue for us was finding a community that ... [would] wrap their arms around it and say this is a win-win situation," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in announcing Jacksonville's commitment. Of course, the Jags and their community might have a hard time recognizing a win, much less a win-win.

It's debatable how much good these London callings do in making international inroads. While the NFL claims that its ratings in Great Britain have gone up 154% since it started playing in London, last year's game was the first that did not sell out. That Rams boss Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Arsenal Football Club, chose to bow out despite all that synergy also raises an eyebrow. But the NFL won't stop trying. With the possible exception of Bond villains, no one is more bent on world domination than executives of pro sports leagues, who love to use terms like "strengthening global brands" and "maximizing foreign market potential."

That, of course, was the prime purpose of NFL Europe, the league's developmental adjunct that ceased operations in 2007. The initiative may have helped sell more foam fingers, but it hasn't inspired Europeans to write sonnets about what they consider to be the other football. In London during the Olympics, I talked with some Brits about their impressions of America. The most they could manage in terms of NFL insight was admiration for "how well the players are able to maneuver while done up in all that armor." It's going to be awhile before they're able to discuss the intricacies of Peyton Manning's audibles.

For a league with global ambitions, the NFL has made an uninspired choice for its ambassadors. With all due respect to the Jaguars ... the Jaguars? That's a little bit like trying to advertise the wonders of American cuisine by offering everyone a baloney sandwich. In addition to their unimpressive record, the Jags are perhaps the least popular team in the league, ranking near the bottom in average attendance and merchandise sales. They have enough trouble drumming up interest in their own market, much less on another continent. Last year a group of fans tried to start a Tebowing-like trend called Jaguaring, which involved clawing the air. That this is the first you are hearing of it should tell you how well it caught on.

There is only one player on the roster, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, likely to be familiar to the casual European football fan. And at last check, Jones-Drew was boycotting training camp in a contract dispute and saying he was open to being traded. If he's not around next year, it's hard to imagine Brits queuing up outside Wembley for tickets to see Blaine Gabbert.

Trying to turn the Jags into Great Britain's Team makes little sense for the NFL. Nor is it the most logical move for the Jaguars. It would seem that the last thing a team drawing only moderate interest at home would want to do is leave the country for a while. There is always the risk that the Jacksonville fans won't notice they've left or, worse, won't notice when they return.

Maybe one day they won't return. There has been speculation about the league's eventually placing a franchise in London, although Jags owner Shahid Khan is more interested in making Jacksonville the most popular team in the U.K. Frankly, both scenarios seem about as realistic as Bill Belichick's going on a pub crawl with the queen. NFL teams would be wise to keep their goals less ambitious when they go abroad. Just remember to mind the gap and keep Prince Harry away from the cheerleaders. Consider that a win-win.

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WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF BOND VILLAINS, NO ONE IS MORE BENT ON WORLD DOMINATION THAN EXECUTIVES OF PRO SPORTS LEAGUES.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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