Despite Patriots’ British Invasion, American football still comes up short across the pond

Lee Walker

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan was no doubt licking his lips, or preening his handlebar moustache, when a crowd attendance of 84,004 was announced during the New England Patriots' crushing 45-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the sixth regular-season NFL game played in London.

This was the highest attendance since the NFL began playing games again in London and the Jaguars will play "home" games at Wembley in each of the next four seasons.

Khan has been eulogizing that "You've got to fish in ponds where you've got fish in there. We're going to a pond where there are no fishermen." But he may soon realize that there are plenty of big-game fisherman already in the UK.

Selling out Wembley Stadium once a year does not tell the whole story with regards the NFL's popularity in England. London is a multinational city of 10 million people, and it is not too tough to sell out a well-marketed event. Even Madonna can still sell out a stadium in this town.

And the annual Wembley game is a pilgrimage for NFL fans the length and breadth of the country -- a specific celebration for devotees from mainland Europe who get a chance to support a sport which has a dedicated fan base on this side of the Atlantic.

Note the use of the word sport. On the famous walk up Wembley Way to the stadium you see the shirts of all 32 teams - the popularity of different franchises a nod to the initial growth of interest in the NFL when it began being shown on terrestrial television in the UK in the mid-1980s.

The Dolphins, thanks to Dan Marino, are one of the most popular teams in the UK and one of the biggest cheers of the day at Wembley was when another Miami TD was shown on the big screen. And the Rams were cheered not because they were the home team. It was because 80 percent of the crowd support one of the other 30 NFL franchises and in this country we love an underdog, especially an 8.5-point underdog.

At the NFL's FanFest rally on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said "there's a permanent home team now, I'm sure they'll develop a great following." He is failing to recognize the mindset of the European sports fan.

Our support of soccer teams are based on tribal loyalty which is not necessarily linked to geographical location. The NFL is now presented with a double-edged sword, as it has cemented teams in our consciousness that engender a similar passion. The NFL has moved from a curiosity to a way of life for some British sports fans. This crowd knows the product - we know what a Cover-2 defense is, we understand the zone blitz, and we also have OUR teams.

British fans will not support the Jacksonville Jaguars at the expense of the teams they have followed for up to 30 years.

[Also: Colts rookie RB delivers play of the year candidate]

The league has scheduled two regular-season games to be played in London in 2013 - 49ers vs. the Jaguars, and the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Minnesota Vikings (a "home" game for the Vikings).

And already, out-of-town fans are discussing which game they will attend. The diaspora that made up a large percentage of Sunday's crowd have an economic consideration to make and one that is more prevalent when you are not watching YOUR team. Although the NFL is firmly in the sporting consciousness of this country, it is far from the forefront, and two games per season in the same location is going to be a tough sell.

Sky Sports, sister channel of Fox Sports, shows the NFL's Thursday night game and a Sunday doubleheader. Viewing figures for the Rams-Pats game were expected to be their highest of the year, outside the Super Bowl, at around 150,000. To put that into context, it's about a tenth of the audience that watched the big soccer game of the day between Chelsea and Manchester United.

The NFL is the seventh-most watched sport on Sky Sports. A positive spin from the NFL is that it can now go head-to-head with the Justin Timberlake Shriners Open and win the ratings battle. It even outpoint the top-level domestic rugby league.

It is not a novelty and not a niche, but a sport that has plenty of established big fish to contend with.

The decision to play two games in London, rather than outsource to another part of the UK or Germany --  a country that was still buying into the second-rate NFL Europe to the death and is so fanatical about Americana that it still worships David Hasselhoff as a musician -- appears an attempt to gauge the market ahead of a potential London franchise.

[Also: Pittsburgh Steelers give us new era of regrettable uniforms]

"Franchise" was the buzzword at every press gathering this week. Even Boris Johnson, London's mayor (a sort of scientific experiment to see what would happen if you ever combined the DNA of Rudy Giuliani and Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka), said pre-game he was looking forward to welcoming more American football to this country.

The NFL has focused on growing the game in five territories - the UK, China, Japan, Mexico and Canada — but the majority of NFL international's 35 staff are based here and Kraft was one who shared his belief that London is ready to have its own professional football team.

"I think London has shown, with the way they've handled the Olympics and every other major sporting event, that it's time for you to have your own NFL franchise, based in London."

But for the London Jaguars, London Monarchs, or whatever stereotyped suffix can be pinned on this hypothetical team, this will be a second team for this generation of NFL fans at least.

We struggle to understand how someone who grew up watching the St Louis Cardinals can now be a devout Rams fan. I have a good friend who has sworn to me that the only thing off-limits at his wedding next year is referencing his switch of allegiance from one soccer club to another when he was 12. Abandoning your team is worse than stealing your friend's wife. So two games a season to a neutral audience is going to be a tough sell, eight games incredibly hard.

It is a double-edged sword for the league. A nomadic European-based franchise could sell out eight games a season with ease, playing in London, Berlin, Barcelona, Paris and Milan amongst other cities.

The sport is not only big in Germany but neighbouring Austria has the most developed amateur game in the continent while Finland is another surprising hotspot. Of course this would be a team with no identity, and the only time Europe is united in sport is during the Ryder Cup. Then we are cheering against Americans, not for them.

"We are looking for committed fans, not guys who just watch the Super Bowl every year, but genuine supporters who watch week in and week out," says Chris Parsons, vice-president of NFL international.

But in previous years there has been no noticeable bounce in the viewing figures on Sky a week after the London game. Though nothing grows an audience quite like sticking it on the BBC.

The national broadcaster now shows the Super Bowl while shift workers, insomniacs and students can enjoy the Monday night game in the early hours of the morning.

Any London franchise would need the support of free-to-air TV (Sky Sports is a subscription service) to allow the sport in this country to reach the next level.

For now, the NFL has its place but it is a long way from challenging the established giants.

In Europe, soccer is first, second and third.

Fantasy football coverage on Yahoo! Sports:

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Fantasy basketball: Best available players for your roster
Video: Gamecocks' Marcus Lattimore suffers devastating leg injury
Gallery: Latest photos of Hurricane Sandy
Dwight Howard opens up about 'hell' that was Orlando