Last Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium saw the Jacksonville Jaguars return to London for the third time in as many years, and an inspired performance pushed them to a win over the Buffalo Bills. As well as a good game, I found the topics surrounding what’s happening behind the scenes of these NFL events at Wembley just as interesting.
This was the Jaguars first win at Wembley as part of the NFL’s annual “International Series” of games played in the UK capital, a series that they have fully committed to. The short-term aim of this commitment is to boost the worldwide status and appeal of the team, which has included helping to set up activities around the venue for the crowds and the formation of the Union Jax Jacksonville Jaguars UK fan club.
The game itself was hard fought and one of the closest and most thrilling to be played at Wembley since the NFL began visiting in 2007. The Buffalo Bills entered as favourites, boasting a strong run game and one of the best defenses in the league. However, with regular quarterback Tyrod Taylor out injured, they were forced to start young backup E.J. Manuel and come the second quarter it was Jacksonville’s defense who began to write the headlines.
Losing 7-3, Manuel stepped back to throw but was hit hard and lost the ball, which was recovered by the defense and returned into the end zone for a touchdown. Soon the youngster was back on the pitch with a chance at redemption but instantly threw an interception that was ran in for a second defensive touchdown. The defense could smell blood and were not relenting, forcing a second interception. The Jaguars offense took over and scored again, the three quick errors from Manuel meant the score was suddenly Jaguars 27-3 Bills.
To his credit, Manuel did recover some composure and started to complete passes again which helped haul his team back to just a 27-24 deficit. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles then threw an interception of his own, which was returned for a touchdown and remarkably the Bills now had the lead – 31-27. Knowing time was running out, Bortles drove his offense down the field and completed a great scoring pass to receiver Allen Hurns that decided the back-and-forth game and earned the Jaguars a 34-31 victory.
As for the off-the-field details, it was positive for the NFL that it was such an exciting game, as it helps their mission to advertise and grow the sport as much as possible in the UK. Often-heard phrases like “global brand”, which are used to describe the NFL during each International Series event, are a reminder that the NFL’s primary focus on these occasions is one more of a business plan than simply the promotion of a sport in a foreign country. Like so many others, this is now more of a product than a sport and there is money to be made rather than just a way to entertain an audience for an afternoon.
The NFL recently announced an extension to the deal with Wembley and will play at least two games a year until 2020. And these are not just exhibition games, but regular season games. They matter! So what will ultimately result from all of these NFL visits to London? Will we see more and more games here each year? Will London get its own NFL team? How well would that work? There are differing opinions on these topics and there appears to be so many little factors involved that my brain can’t quite form a full understanding without going on large fact-finding sessions, which I’m not prepared to do any time soon.
The NFL fan in me loves the fact I can go and watch an NFL game live at Wembley Stadium. The sports fan in me spares a thought for all the loyal Jacksonville Jaguars fans back on the east coast of America; part of the agreed announcement was that the Jaguars will continue to host one of these annual games right through to 2020. The fans in the Jacksonville, Florida area are losing to another country one of only eight chances to see their team play at home for a number of years. Maybe we should start calling them the Jacksonville / London Jaguars.
With the franchise making Wembley their second home, there are certainly those who believe the owners could move the team out of Jacksonville altogether. Are we watching the future London Jaguars? Time will tell.