More than three years have passed since Mohamed Al Fayed, in a fitting coda to his eccentric reign, donned an oversized fake moustache and faced the cameras with Shahid Khan to mark the bewhiskered American sports mogul’s takeover of Fulham Football Club.
It marked the second play of Pakistan-born, Florida-based Khan’s incursion into the capital’s sports market. The first had come a few months earlier, when the car parts tycoon with an air of the circus ringmaster agreed a deal for his American football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, to stage one match a year at Wembley Stadium.
On Sunday, the Jags are due to make their fourth annual visit to north-west London, where they will face the Indianapolis Colts. It is the first in a triple-bill of National Football League matches to be staged here this month and, for Khan’s team, the latest opportunity to highlight their commitment to being the city’s unofficial NFL franchise.
Those who run the Jags count their visits as a huge success.
Since 2013 the team has gone from 31st to ninth most popular NFL team in the UK, while the Wembley fixtures offer a lucrative boost to their coffers: ticket sales and commercial income from the annual games account for 12.5 per cent of so-called local revenue – income not derived from NFL central distributions and the single most significant factor in teams’ results.
“It has gone spectacularly well,” Hussain Naqi, the Jags’ senior vice-president and the man in charge of their international development, tells City A.M.
The matches have also been a boon for the NFL as a whole, which started staging one London game per season in 2007 and is now up to three a year – routinely sell-outs – with Twickenham hosting its first later next month.
Gridiron’s increased presence is now worth £45m per year to the London economy, Deloitte estimates, and represents the NFL’s testing of the water for a possible London franchise, perhaps as soon as 2022.
London franchise on track
Whether that franchise would be relocated from the United States or a new entity remains unclear and the unprecedented move would first require the agreement of three quarters of the league’s 32 team owners, but the plan would appear to be firmly on track.
“Our job, from a team and a league perspective, is to develop this market to a point where we understand there’s a deep enough fan-base should the owners decide they want to put a team here; that the infrastructure is there; that there is a sustainable amount of interest in 10 games or eight games or whatever it may be,” says Naqi.
“I think the fan metrics, are really, really strong, and growing very quickly in ways that are really encouraging. It’s a very difficult question to answer in the abstract – at what point do you know that you’re ready? But certainly I think there are some very, very positive signs.
"All of those metrics you would look at to see whether this market is ready are pointing very much in the right direction.”
Jags an obvious choice
The Jaguars’ bond with London – they are the only NFL team to make an individual commitment to playing here once a year – would make them an obvious choice were an existing franchise to be transplanted here.
Naqi hesitates to agree, but says: “Our commitment is for one game at this point. We very much view ourselves as London’s team and, the way we have been embraced by Londoners, we think that that is a reciprocal view. We are very much viewed as London’s team.
"We see ourselves as a real platform for the NFL on a consistent basis here. Our fans and the league have shown that they are receptive to that and they view us in the same way. London is a critical element to our business.”
Tottenham plans muddy waters
Ambitious plans taking shape in another corner of north London could complicate matters, however.
Tottenham Hotspur’s new £400m, 60,000-capacity stadium is being built with almost as much emphasis on suitability for hosting American football as its more traditional purpose and the club has already struck a 10-year deal with the NFL to stage at least one fixture per season from 2018.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has said he wants to house a London franchise in N17. That would be unlikely to suit the Jags, however, who have a long-standing relationship with and preference for their current home-from-home.
“We’re very happy at Wembley,” says Naqi. “We think it’s a great venue. From an infrastructure perspective we think it offers a great experience for our fans, we think the Football Association has done a great job in maintaining Wembley as a top-rate facility and we are really pleased with out relationship. I wouldn’t anticipate us playing any other place than Wembley.”
End of the affair?
Should the NFL overlook the Jaguars in favour of exporting another franchise to the capital, it could, Naqi concedes, signal the end of their British affair.
“Oh I think so,” he says. “The relationship [with the market] of a team that plays [here] once a year versus a team that plays 10 times a year is apples and oranges. If you look at it in that context, naturally our relationship would be different.”
For now, though, the Jags are putting down more roots on this side of the Atlantic.
They have extended their arrangement with Wembley until 2020 and launched schemes to develop American football at grass-roots level in Britain, from 35 London secondary schools to residential training camps in Loughborough.
Khan is keen to strengthen the working relationship between his gridiron team and Fulham. They already share a sponsor in Visit Florida, whose signage adorns the roof of one of the stands at the football club’s Craven Cottage home and is visible from flights bound for Heathrow.
A degree of uncertainty may hover in the distance, but the impression is that Naqi and Khan are in this for the long haul.