More than just a nice place to visit
For the American tourist, there's a lot to like about London:
The pomp of Buckingham Palace, the circumstantial accounts of terror that haunt the Tower of London, the chaos of Piccadilly Circus, the majestic views from the London Eye that leave Big Ben looking more like Medium Ben. For people of culture, there are the gorgeous works from J.M.W. Turner at the National Gallery -- and for those with a stronger stomach for, say, sharks and sheep suspended in formaldehyde, there are various examples around town from that quirky Damien Hirst.
And, the food's getting better, too; the classic comfort foods of the United Kingdom's restaurants and pubs are now almost … comforting.
Oh, and they speak English. Sort of.
Over the years, the NFL has cast an eye to the virgin territory of the United Kingdom (not unlike the original pilgrims in reverse). The ultimate goal, which most interviewed for the story attributed to the commissioner, is to have a team there when (and if) it can be viable.
Players' reactions to the concept of American football abroad haven't always been positive.
"The time change is brutal for the physical work we do. … To live in London and travel to the United States to play, whoever that team is they're at a disadvantage every time they hop on a plane," Smith said. "You're basically 6½ hours behind. You have to get acclimated, which requires not like a West Coast to East Coast or East Coast to West Coast where it's a day and a half and you can fudge it."
In Smith's view, such a move could compromise player safety. "If that happens, it's a clear vision that they don't really care about the players' safety, they care about their pockets. And I think that is messed up.''
"You can quote me," Long said. "I would be absolutely livid. ... I love growing our sport globally, but logistically to put a team through that would be like punishment. They have great fans there and they were super enthusiastic and awesome to everyone when we were there, but to ask people to take those road trips every time they do an away game is just ludicrous."
"Me personally, no," Scheffler said. "I don't think I would do that. Just personal preference. I'm not a big worldly traveler. I consider myself more of a homebody and that sort of thing. I think it would just be too out of the box for me."
Not everyone thinks it's a terrible idea.
"I think it would be awesome," said Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce. "The biggest thing the league has been trying to do is globalize. ... That's the one thing football doesn't have, that global area. It's one of the things that's cool about soccer and the World Cup. You have that country camaraderie behind it, whereas America, it's kind of our own deal right now."
Kelce, though, could see potential pitfalls. "Might be different for guys with families. But how much different is it from going from California to New York or New York to London? It's still a pretty good trip either way you're looking at it."
For the first time ever, there are two NFL regular-season games scheduled this year for Wembley Stadium. This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers meet the "hosting" Minnesota Vikings, more than 4,000 miles from their actual home, and on Oct. 27, the San Francisco 49ers "visit" the Jacksonville Jaguars. The two games, expected to draw more than 80,000 fans each, sold out in several days.
It's going to happen
The good news for the skeptics? Players, coaches and staff of the four teams get to jump on a plane afterward and return home. But what if they didn't? What if there were a franchise in London? What financial, logistical and competitive challenges would have to be overcome?
It's time to start asking these questions, folks, because it's going to happen. Yes, with some serious thrust from commissioner Roger Goodell and a league with a powerful hunger to increase its revenue streams, it's quite likely there soon will be an NFL team in London.
The people who understand these things say it could happen as soon as 2020, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. So, say hello to the London Fogs, the London (Austin) Powers or the London Eye Formation -- all nicely positioned to attract principal sponsors.
We believe that eventually there will be a team there. ... You may see a team in London before Los Angeles -- that's our quick take.Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development
The reason you haven't heard much about it is that, around the league, London remains a Subject That Cannot Be Discussed. Conversations with more than a dozen league and team executives and staffers yielded little concrete information, and yet there was a sense of inevitability in many of their voices.
"That is currently above my pay grade," laughed one team executive.
This is, however, right in the wheelhouse of Chris Parsons, who earlier this year was promoted by the NFL to senior vice president of international. Yet even he was cautious.
"Look, we've been incredibly pleased with the way the fan base has grown," Parsons said. "But we have a lot more work to do. If we're successful with it, one of the things you might be able to think about is putting a team there. Moving a game a year for one or two teams is very manageable. But thinking about more games, the immediate next step, that's where the complexities come in.
"We're trying to keep it in manageable chunks, if you will. The notion is out there, but we've got to walk before we start running."
Perhaps, but it can't come quickly enough for the league's owners, whose domestic revenues -- though gargantuan -- seem to have peaked. Playing games in Canada and Mexico has produced mixed results; London is the next frontier.
Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of public affairs and stadium development, was intimately involved in the team's recent search for a new home. There were conversations with developers in Los Angeles -- and a proposal from the league to play three games over three years in London.
"We believe that eventually there will be a team there," Bagley said. "The logistics for London are very workable. With a solid fan base there's an opportunity to extend the brand internationally.
"You may see a team in London before Los Angeles -- that's our quick take."
Clearly, the challenges are great, but all things considered it seems doable. Here are the greatest obstacles, in order of degree of difficulty:
Creating a viable fan base
Have you ever tried to watch a cricket game?
That's roughly what the NFL is up against as it tries to infuse sports fans in England with passion for the game. Soccer is, by far, the most popular sport in the United Kingdom, followed by rugby, cricket, motor sports and -- with the rise of Scotland's Andy Murray -- tennis. In recent years, the NFL's TV ratings have grown, but the sport is hovering around No. 7 and No. 8, among the second-tier sports. The league would like to see it move into the top five.
This is a long way from the rise and fall of NFL Europe and the late, great London Monarchs.
Still, the subtleties of the read-option and the importance of blitz pickups are lost on most of the 11 million British fans the NFL claims. So the learning curve is steep. It's a process. Some would call it a tough sell.
That's why Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his wife, Ashley, stepped off a red-eye in early July and rode straight to downtown London. Wearing his Steelers' black and gold jersey, he posed for pictures in front of the clock tower at the north end of Westminster Abbey. Technically, the bell itself is named "Big Ben," but the marketing folks didn't care. It was an obvious (but charming) photo opportunity, and a half-dozen TV cameras and a dozen print reporters and their photographers all recorded the moment.
"It was eye opening to me to see so many fans and that the sport is growing over here," Roethlisberger told Sky Sports, which televises five or six NFL games live each week. "The only thing I know about Wembley is from watching soccer games on the television and just how crazy the fans are and the energy in the crowd. It reminds me of a game back home."
He posed, smiling, with a group in front of a Steeler Nation UK banner. Two members wore Troy Polamalu jerseys, one had a throwback No. 7 and there were even, oddly, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers jerseys.
"Ben was very well received," said Burt Lauten, the Steelers' communications coordinator. "He understands we're trying to grow the game. He embraced it."
London has approximately 8 million citizens, roughly the same as New York (which supports two franchises) and three times the size of Chicago. For more than three decades, that population has been exposed to the NFL, going back to the old ITV World of Sport shows when clips of Super Bowls appeared with a one- or two-week delay.
In 1982, the newly launched Channel 4 couldn't get the rights to soccer, rugby or cricket and started running NFL highlights each Sunday. Four years later, more than four million watched the Chicago Bears win Super Bowl XX, and later in 1986 the Bears and Cowboys were the first teams to participate in the American Bowl series.
"If you're riding in a taxi over here and you ask the driver to name an American football player, if he's 50 years or older, he'll say 'The Refrigerator,'" said David Tossell, the NFL's director of public affairs for Europe. "William Perry became sort of a cult figure -- he was doing TV adverts over here."
The BBC first broadcast the Super Bowl in 2008, and this year's Super Bowl audience, combined with Sky Sports', was 4.3 million. A handful of live games can be found on a weekly basis on the BBC, Sky and Channel 4.
There was once a fear that a game in London might "throw a team's season out of whack," Tossell said, but the first regular-season game of the International Series, between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins in 2007, eventually dispelled that notion.
"The Giants went on a tear and won the Super Bowl that year," Tossell said.
Tom Thayer was a starting offensive lineman for the Bears in Super Bowl XX as well as in that first American Bowl. There was only one thing he liked about going to London.
"It was training camp and our coach was Mike Ditka," Thayer said. "We had one-a-days instead of two-a-days."
Thayer returned as a radio announcer for Bears games in Dublin (1997) and London (2011).
"When I played at Notre Dame and Chicago, my family drove to the games," he said. "How is that going to happen if the team is London? Young players need that family support. It's just my opinion, but I don't think you'll find a lot of guys who would want to play there.
"Just wrestling with all that luggage all the time would be tough. Players have enough things they need to focus on without getting into a whole different country."
Banking on the buzz
Parsons has the right resume for the job.
He was born in Manchester, England, and graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in economics and business management. He worked for Bass PLC and oversaw the global growth of Bass beer. For a decade, he led the U.S. marketing program for Diageo, a premium drinks company. Now, as the NFL's senior vice president of international, can he convince British sports fans that the NFL is their cup of tea?
"We wouldn't be playing these games without a precise objective," Parsons said. "And that objective is to aggressively grow the fan base. In my experience, when people go to the game and bump into British fans with jerseys on, desperate for more, you get a palpable sense of the strength of the sport."
It doesn't happen by accident. NFL teams have been working the British crowd for years, trying to accelerate that learning curve. In March, the Vikings brought safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and center John Sullivan to London, where they made many appearances, including at fan forums and teaching Q&A sessions. Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams made a similar trip in July.
"That got us a buzz factor," said Tanya Dreesen, the Vikings' marketing manager.
Wait until Saturday, when they shut down Regent Street for three-quarters of a mile, from Piccadilly to Oxford. There will be a six-hour fan rally, NFL-themed activities, interactive areas and appearances by players from the two teams, the head coaches and even the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
According to Dreesen, about 600,000 fans are expected.
"It will feel like the Super Bowl," she said. "The next day at Wembley, it's a free tailgate party for everyone, not just the ticket holders."
For the record, the Jaguars' cheerleaders are doing their part; their 2014 lingerie calendar was shot on location in England, featuring the ubiquitous red phone booths, a stately castle and, for some reason, a bawdy pillow fight.
Losing sleep over jet lag
When the Jaguars committed to four London games over the next four years, some people thought they had lost their minds. One game, sure -- do your part for the NFL's designs on world domination. But four?
"We'll be making the trip for four consecutive years," Jaguars president Mark Lamping said. "We should be able to figure it out."
As he spoke, Lamping was on the campus of San Jose State University a few days after the Jaguars had played at Oakland. Their Week 3 game was at Seattle, and the team decided to stay on the West Coast for 10 days, with the typical routine of meetings and practices before flying into Seattle last Saturday.
This could serve the Jaguars well, not just for their four games in London -- but if they ultimately become, as some have speculated, the actual franchise in London. The league, apparently, has discussed building a facility in the northeast United States that would be headquarters for a London team so it could play two or even three games without flying back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.
Shahid Khan, who bought the team from Wayne Weaver in 2011, is a global kind of guy. He was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. when he was 16. Khan made his billions manufacturing car parts, and this summer added the Fulham soccer club of the Premier League to his sports portfolio. Khan calls playing those four games in London the "missing piece" for a team that typically doesn't sell out its games in northern Florida.
Perhaps, as a concession to the flag-waving Brits, Jacksonville could rename itself the Union Jags, inviting the inevitable sponsorship of a certain posh automobile company. The Jacksonville cheerleaders and mascot already have made an appearance at a Fulham game, and there is a full-time sales director in London. Lamping has made the trip a few times, too.
"The travel back and forth is not nearly as inconvenient as the actual perception," he said. "You can do creative things to minimize the effects."
After their London game, both the Vikings and Steelers have byes in Week 5. This is something the NFL would probably do for teams the week after an away game in London.
The Steelers and Vikings have vastly different logistical approaches to the game. Pittsburgh will practice at home on Wednesday and Thursday, then fly overnight to London and put in the usual shorter Friday practice. The Steelers will sleep only two nights in England. The Vikings are going all in: Many among their 200-plus entourage will stay for at least six nights.
Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman, between college pro days, traveled to England for a two-day site inspection.
"We've talked to a lot of teams about this; I don't know if there's a right way or a wrong way," Spielman said. "We felt getting there earlier is a benefit for our club with the time change. During training camp, our trainers and coaches brought in a sleep expert from the Mayo Clinic, who spoke to our players how to adapt to the time change, how to be at peak performance when the game starts."
ESPN.com contacted its own sleep expert, Dr. Christopher Winter of Charlottesville, Va. He is a consultant to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards and has worked extensively with Major League Baseball.
"Just by creating a team that's isolated in its own time zone, that presents a lot of challenges," Winter said of a potential London franchise.
Winter says teams could help themselves by finding players who are more adaptive to change. He thinks a London team would have an advantage over visitors because players would grow accustomed to the travel. Going west to east, Winter pointed out, is harder because it's difficult to force yourself to go to bed earlier. On the other hand, every road game for a London team would involve a transatlantic flight.
"You're playing out of your time zone every game on the road," Winter said. "The game is fundamentally changing. Now we have Sunday night games, Monday night games and even Thursday night games. It's not just how fast and strong you are, it's which athletes can handle all these crazy changes the league and the networks are throwing at them."
Some other sticky wickets
What about passports?
"That wasn't one of the tougher issues," said Hamzah Ahmad, the Jaguars' director of football logistics and facilities, laughing. "The U.S. Post Office made it really easy for us."
For two days during training camp, about half the Jaguars players filled out the necessary forms and had their pictures taken.
The food, of course, could be a deal-breaker for some.
Geji McKinney-Banks, the Vikings' director of food services, made a visit to England in May and was not thrilled with the beef from Scotland.
"There was something there," she said. "A tinge. If one of our players is going to bite into a burger, it has to taste like the USDA beef he gets at home."
McKinney-Banks tracked down the company that provided USDA beef for the American contingent at the Olympics, and now her players won't be making jokes about mad cows. If they dare, they'll have the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. One night's dinner menu for the Vikings included walled garden pumpkin and sage soup as well as steak and kidney pie, to go along with the usual suspects of pulled pork, ribeyes and grilled rock shrimp. Through the week there also will be fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding -- but the hot sauce, seasonings, water and Gatorade are coming from the United States. So is the Bisquick.
"We shipped it in a month ago," McKinney-Banks said. "They just don't do biscuits over there."
There are, however, modest signs of American football life. Menelik Watson, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive tackle and the pride of Manchester, was drafted in the second round (No. 42 overall) by the Oakland Raiders after only two years at Florida State. There is an active British university league of American football; the Birmingham Lions beat the Hertfordshire Hurricanes 17-13 in this year's championship.
For an ongoing litmus test of the NFL in London, keep your eye on the Jaguars.
"Can you take a franchise that has a relatively low level of awareness and a relatively small following and, through regular appearances in London, make that awareness and popularity grow?" asked Lamping, the Jaguars' president. "If the answer is yes, it helps the league determine what the long-term strategy should be."
Tossell, the NFL's man in London, is ready.
"The commissioner has said if business keeps going the right way, the logical next step would be looking at the feasibility of a franchise here in London," he said. "We're all confident if it gets to the point, where there's a will ... we'll find a way."
ESPN NFL Nation reporters David Newton, Michael Rothstein, Phil Sheridan and Nick Wagoner contributed to this report.