Another year, another season of NFL football in the UK passed by. Sometimes, we UK American football fans have to pinch ourselves to truly believe how far we've come in just seven years. When the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in 2007, no one knew what to expect. Now we have just witnessed the fourteenth regular season game to be played at the famous stadium.
2015 saw the second season running that we had three International Series games played. All three kicked off in the afternoon locally, making it the morning back in the States, with two games played in back to back weeks. The first game this year was a matchup of two teams from the same division, one of these is the Dolphins, who along with two other teams, returned to Wembley after playing their last year. The experimentation with different kick-off times, divisional games and testing the wear and tear of the hallowed Wembley turf are not just to test the UK market for fans on both sides of the pond, they are all clearly foundations being laid for a potential franchise.
However, you can't talk about the International Series without mentioning the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the build up to their game against the Buffalo Bills, the Florida based team announced they would be playing at Wembley for the next five seasons through to 2020. The idea to have one team return each year and build a fan base in the UK is coming somewhat towards a crossroads as we approach the end of the initial four year agreement with the Jags. So how far have the team, its support and the UK come since the partnership started?
Initially the idea of a team committing long term to the UK did not involve the Jaguars. The St Louis Rams were the initial team wanting to host three games at Wembley Stadium; however they pulled out after their first year due to problems with their current stadium back home. So, in stepped the Jaguars with a four-year agreement. It seemed perfect. The team had not been successful in a while and was lacking a personality and, crucially, a strong fan base. This was a great chance for the new owner, Shad Khan, to stamp his authority on his new team and give them a new identity.
For the league it was a great chance to test the waters when it came to expanding a fan base for one particular team instead of just the league or the game in general. The Jags are a relatively young team and came into the league after the NFL was last popular in the UK in the 80s (Jacksonville's first season in the NFL was in 1995). Therefore their level of support both here and in the US would have been pretty much at the bottom of the list of 32 teams.
It has long been mooted that this was also the chance to see if London, the UK or indeed Europe could get behind a team to call their own. Despite the endless speculation of there possibly being a team in the future, the Jags insist they are staying put in Jacksonville. However from the outside it looks like the world's worst kept secret that it would be the Jags moving to London.
But has the experiment worked?
So far, the answer is yes. The Jags went from being one of the least supported teams in the UK to being in the top 10. Upon their arrival this year the number of Union Jax fans - the fan group for UK Jaguars fans - had reached 40,000. From going to the games and speaking to fans of different teams it seems like no one dislikes or has grown tired of them, if anything we all have a soft spot for the Jags now.
It could be argued that the win against the Bills was one of the most important in the International Series as it would be very hard to sell a losing team. They now must progress and continually win, not just in London, but also back in Jacksonville to become a contender. The love for the game in the UK has grown but the next test seems to be continuing to grow support for one team. However, some obstacles lie ahead.
A while back I read a piece on Vice sports which argued why the NFL should not bring a team to London. The biggest point was that no good team packs up and moves city. All teams relocate due to financial problems and/or the place they currently call home are not as emotionally invested in supporting a poor team (unless you're the Cleveland Browns!). If the Jags or any other team were to move to the UK, which has its own logistical problems, they are more than likely going to be terrible. How many current UK Patriots or Packers fans will give up their Sunday, missing their team play on TV to watch their new team lose every two weeks?
However this is something I argued against last year when talk once again intensified about a London franchise. At first it would be tough and football fans may turn up just to either see a game of football or watch their favourite team play the home London side. But the rise in support of the Jags has started to prove that it could be possible a London team would gain its own fans outright and with time, young fans would have only known supporting the London team. It is often the point that Neil Reynolds of NFL UK and Sky Sports uses - making reference to Carolina, who gained the Panthers back in the early nineties.
In terms of the roles of the U K and even the Jaguars, the next few years could be the most important. Next year we will see games at Twickenham, and Tottenham Hotspur's new stadium will be hosting games from 2018. The chances are we could be very close to every NFL team making at least one appearance on British soil. If this is the case we may find out in the infancy of the Spurs games whether fans are happy to see a variety of teams play, with the hope of some big match ups, or they would prefer to root for one team alone.
If that team were to be the Jags, would they still be called the Jaguars? This isn't a case of a team moving across a few states. This would be a seismic shift. Surely the franchise would need to reboot? It would need to be akin to when the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans. They have become their own new identity and have created their own history in their new home.
Then again, is a London franchise the end goal? Games will soon be staged at three different venues in London, with the NFL confirming last week that a game will be played in Mexico next year and Commissioner Roger Goodell further implying that Germany could be the next stop on the NFL world tour. The idea seems to be spreading the game worldwide and if a franchise is an option the NFL will take it, but with the recent development of multiple stadiums in London being used and games further abroad, talk of a franchise may take a back seat for now.
We have come a long way in seven years, more than what some of us could ever dream of. The mere mention of a franchise would have been shocking back in 2007, yet here we are with multiple games in multiple stadiums to be played over the next seven years. When we look back at 2015, it could be the year the evolution of American football took another step forward and on to a new set of downs. The end zone is in sight, we just don't know how we are going to celebrate when we get there.