Flicking idly through the Sky Sports channels looking for something halfway interesting the other week – it’s almost a sport in itself if you’re a subscriber – I happened upon what I took to be one of their self-proclaimed Sky Sports Classics.
It was an NFL game, usually enough to get my attention, and the truncated picture showed it to be pre-widescreen. It was quick and easy to recognise the mid-1990s Buffalo Bills, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and the rest. I have to admit, however, to forgetting that their onscreen opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, even existed at that time of this, an AFC wildcard game from 1996.
Classic? That’s what the onscreen graphic said, under the Jaguars logo with a couple of Union Jacks flying from either side. Then it suddenly clicked – this was part of the ongoing, ludicrous attempt by the NFL to make the Jaguars “Britain’s team”.
Unloved in America, even at their Florida home where crowds have been modest in recent times, the Jags have been designated to play four “home” games in successive years at Wembley. The annual NFL London game has been a runaway success, but if I was overtly cynical I would detect a distaste from owners of highly successful and established NFL teams to giving up an occasional home game to London, and a decision to hand that honour in perpetuity to one of the weakest of their pack.
The NFL’s idea seems to be that the UK public will identify with these plucky Jags who keep finding their way to North West London. However, to me this utterly misunderstands the NFL’s UK audience.
All those of us who have followed the sport since Channel 4 began showing it in 1981 or have picked it up since then have long decided on our teams, usually the high-profile ones. Long-standing fans from the 80s love the 49ers, Giants, Broncos and Dolphins. Newer fans like the Pats and the Pack. Some fools pinned their colours to the mast of the Saints for some strange reason, suffering 30 years of misplays, playoff calamities and bizarre running back injuries before being rewarded, twenty-fold, in 2010.
But I digress. NFL fans in the UK don’t need to be told by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, however subtly and politely, that the Jags are now “our team”.
No, they’re not. I’d be surprised if the UK division of the Jags Fan Club could fill a Wembley hospitality box.
It might work if the Jags were being subtly “promised” to London as the mythical first “foreign” NFL franchise. But Shad Khan, the colourful Pakistani émigré who owns the Jaguars, undertook as part of his deal to buy the club to keep them in North Florida for the foreseeable future. Quite apart from that, I don’t see any ownership candidate or group in the UK that might appeal to the NFL cartel.
To me the Jags regular presence for these next four years could be the breaking of the NFL’s successful sojourns to London. NFL fans in the UK to Wembley every year go for the occasion and the love of the game even if their favourite team isn’t playing, and they have mostly been rewarded with decent match-ups.
Foisting a perennial no-hoper like Jacksonville on them isn’t exactly the best way to promote the game here, no matter how many propaganda programmes that Sky are induced to air.