Mark Waller, the NFL's point-person for the London initiative, said he could foresee an NFL team perhaps playing multiple games in London in the same season in the coming years and that the NFL will be adding games to the London schedule in years to come. Waller, the NFL's Executive Vice President, International, said the league "is making good progress" toward an eventual ownership vote on a relocation to London and that his group continues to study solutions for potential logistical issues, particularly regarding playoff games abroad.
Sunday's game between the Colts and Jaguars in London is part of an expanded schedule, and Waller said the league will closely gauge the feedback it receives from the Colts, who will play in Week 5 and do not get a bye following their game with the Jags in London on Sunday. This will be the first time a team will play in the same week in which it returns from England for a regular-season game. The league will continue to add games in London in the coming years, Waller said, and wants to get more teams to play there that haven't previously been before.
"We're focused on getting as many teams as possible and coaches and owners and players as possible to go through the UK experience and play a game here," Waller told me from London as the league was completing preparation for this weekend's game, "either as the home team or the away team. This year, we've added three more teams that will go through it for the first time, and we'd like to keep adding more new teams each year so that more people feel confident about the experience.
"Ultimately, the owners will decide (if a team relocates to London) and for us it's important that as many owners as possible have had a first-hand experience when they do come to the point where they will decide, that they can feel directly responsible, that they've already experienced it, and that they know what they are committing to. That's really an important part of this to us."
Waller said the numbers of kids playing American football in the UK continues to rise and that the league is drawing strong viewership numbers for broadcasts of games and for weekly highlights and features shows on the BBC.
Waller said that it's possible a team could play twice abroad in the same season and that his group continues to seek more volunteers to sacrifice a traditional home game to go to London instead. The Jaguars and Rams are already in longer-term commitments to play there. NFL International, in conjunction with the league's London ownership committee, is also continuing to try to sort out some potentially tricky hypotheticals as well, particularly as it pertains to playoff football.
Playoff pairings often are not set until after the final regular season game is played on a Sunday night in Week 17; any team traveling to London that week would face issues of hashing out an itinerary on the fly, and also face competitive issues given the short turnaround that week, and the following week should they win a wild-card game in London and advance. And the issues would be exacerbated by a wild-card game in which Los Angeles or Seattle had to travel all the way across the Atlantic to play. It may seem far off, but it is the kind of contingency that must be solved. It was an issue broached with the broad ownership during the spring NFL meeting and it's an indication of how far along the league is in trying to make an eventual franchise in London a reality.
"I think we've always said the playoffs is the most complicated area to solve, logistically," Waller said, "and obviously we can mitigate some of it with good planning, good airline partners, good relations with customs and immigration -- all those things to make the wheels spin smoothly. But ultimately the reality is it's from one week to the next in the playoffs, that's not going to change. There's one team at home and one team is away. And one of the things we've talked about -- and I want to be clear that this definitely is not a definitive point of view -- but maybe in the initial period there is a contemplation that there wouldn't be a London home game in the playoffs, but maybe there is a neutral site on the East Coast that is already established that would not be a massive travel obstacle."
At this point Waller said the league does not have a recommended solution to this conundrum but noted that the NFL would have an official stance on this before any relocation vote was ever taken. The league has not yet reached a stage where it is presenting formal ideas about the particulars of a potential London based team to the NFLPA yet, Waller said, but he is pleased with the momentum that continues to build inside the league office and with owners about a potential franchise in London.