In 2007, the National Football League (NFL) staged a regular season game at Wembley Stadium in London for the first time. Since then, the 86,000-capacity venue has hosted at least one match every year in front of sell-out crowds, and during that time the Jacksonville Jaguars have been working tirelessly to establish themselves as the capital city’s home team.
Indeed, in 2012 the Jaguars made a pioneering multi-year commitment to the NFL’s London games, agreeing to feature in four fixtures between 2013 and 2016. That agreement has now been extended until 2020, and grants the Florida-based club exclusive rights to market their brand and sell commercially in the United Kingdom.
With the NFL’s popularity in the UK currently higher than ever, murmurs of introducing a permanent London franchise continue to grow louder. Given their consistent presence within the country, and coupled with the fact that owner Shahid Khan also owns London-based soccer side Fulham FC, the Jaguars have long been touted as the most obvious candidates to relocate to British shores.
In addition to their work on the field, however, the Jaguars have also been focusing their attention on facilitating the development of American football at a grassroots level in the UK. Earlier this month, the club held their second annual Jaguars Academy at Brunel University in west London, a three-day training camp which offered amateur players the opportunity to be put through their paces by former NFL professionals and some of the team’s current coaches. With hundreds of up-and-coming American football players in attendance, SportsPro took the opportunity to catch up with the Jaguars’ senior vice president of international development, Hussain Naqi, to find out more about the franchise’s attempts to promote the sport in the UK, and potential plans to affirm its position as London’s team in the future.
How long have you been running an academy in the UK, and what is the overall aim of the project?
This is our second year operating the academy, and this is part and parcel of a much larger effort the Jaguars have to grow the game in the UK. We have a programme called JagTag which we launched a year and a half ago, which is focused primarily on primary and secondary school children. We have this academy that is geared towards players who have been playing for at least a year from the ages of 19 to 30, and then we have a national flag football tournament which we are putting on in September, and we’re sending the winning team all-expenses paid to the Super Bowl, which is for anybody 18 and over. That’s all part of our target to teach the game and grow it from the school age level to those who are playing be it at university or British American Football Association (BAFA) level. So the academy is part of a much larger narrative that we have about trying to grow the game and improve the quality of play here.
Have you found that participation in the sport has already increased as a result?
Absolutely. From last year we have two of the players from the academy now at university in the US. We’re seeing astronomical growth from the youth participation as well. We’re in close to 50 schools with our JagTag programme and that’s nearly 3,000 kids playing American football. We’re going to be announcing some government support for our initiatives very shortly to grow our JagTag programme even greater. It’s been a really strong year and a half that we’ve been at this, obviously the franchise has been playing our game here for five years now, but our presence to really focus on the growth of the game has only been in the last year and a half and we’re already getting great reception for it.
Hundreds of amateur American football players recently attended the second annual Jaguars Academy at Brunel University, London.
What other activations are you carrying out in the UK to grow the profile of your brand and American football in general?
Our mantra really is growth through participation – that’s kind of our North Star from a strategic perspective. Participation for us can mean any number of things. We’ve obviously talked about the physical participation element but, for the first time ever in this market, we plan to launch a set of viewing parties which are going to be Jaguars-focused – but all NFL games will be shown – at a bar where people aren’t necessarily intimidated by coming and watching a match for three hours because they can also play ping pong, shoot pool and have a great meal. This means that hardcore fans can come and watch, but also those who want to bring their casual fans along and participate in a fun afternoon. Outside of London we have our seven-on-seven tournament; we have one regional in London and one in Manchester, so our final will be a north-versus-south competition. So we really are trying to expand our footprint quite a lot.
Do you think the Jaguars are leading other NFL teams in this space?
Well we are the home team for the UK in London, and have exclusivity with respect to marketing in the UK, so it helps that no other team can come and exploit marketing rights here and commercialise their presence here. So we very much view this as our second home and the fan reception has born that out.
Former NFL stars Tony Boselli (left) and Mark Brunell at this year's Jaguars Academy.
What are the challenges of trying to promote American football in a country where it is not one of the leading sports?
I think the one thing that is a challenge for us is purely the education of the game. I think we have an incredibly receptive audience when people realise how cerebral the game is, and how interesting and nuanced it is – it’s a very intelligent sports market here – but it’s a matter of educating people first. The way we play the game, whether it’s the length of time, the use of pads or the TV timeouts, all that kind of stuff is very different to what folks are used to over here. So for us it’s an education process and that’s why if we’re going to have sustained growth we need to start at the grassroots level and build it from the base up and that’s really what we’re focused on.
The Jaguars have played a game at Wembley Stadium for the past four seasons, and will do so again this September against the Baltimore Ravens. Has the Jaguars’ presence in the UK helped the franchise back in Jacksonville?
It has, and particularly from a commercial perspective. London now represents about 15 per cent of our global revenue, and we have created a number of jobs as a function of our relationship with this market. The fact that you can mention a city like Jacksonville and a city like London in the same sentence now is something that would never have happened six or seven years ago. That’s a real testament to the commitment our owner has, and the courage that the city of Jacksonville has shown in embracing this partnership with London.
Jacksonville will feature in London's NFL games until 2020, and have been widely tipped to make a permanent move to the UK.
Twickenham Stadium staged its first NFL game in 2016, and Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium will host at least two fixtures each year when it opens in 2018. What are your thoughts on the new host venues, and do you think they will see similar success to Wembley Stadium?
Well obviously the Twickenham games from a commercial perspective have done extraordinarily well. They’ve sold out and the fan experience is a really good one there. From our point of view, we love our relationship with Wembley. The Football Association [FA] has been really gracious with us, our fans love the experience there and we’ve won two in a row there which is obviously very helpful, so we really enjoy our time up in Brent. We’re very pleased with how things have gone and with respect to the new Tottenham stadium, I think time will tell. Once it’s completed I’m sure they’ll do a great job and that the NFL will put on a really strong fan experience there as well.
Do you think we could see the introduction of a London-based NFL franchise in the near future?
There are a lot of things that have to happen. There are a lot of logistical things that need to get ironed out, stadium scheduling and all those kinds of things that need to get done. But I don’t think there’s any question over the passion of the fanbase here, the intelligence of the fanbase and the love of the game which is on a trajectory where eventually a franchise can be supported. I think from a fan perspective and from a popularity perspective, there’s no doubt that this market will be a very strong one to consider down the road.