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Why Does the NFL Keep Sending Trash Games to London?

Sunday brings the 30th NFL game played in London. Those games, on average, have been absolutely dreadful. Just how bad has it been? Let’s break it down.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s always fun to look at the tiny differences between the United States and England. We drive on the right side of the road; they drive on the left. We have trucks and strollers; they have lorries and prams. We watch The Bachelor; they watch Love Island. (Actually, I watch Love Island too.) But strangest of all? In England, every NFL game is Thursday Night Football.

Since 2007, the NFL has exported games to England in an attempt to expand its international audience. The league even struck up a deal with Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League team your friend roots for because they wanted to pick a club that was reasonably good but didn’t want to pick one that had recently won a championship. The NFL helped fund the new Tottenham stadium, which was specifically designed to host NFL games. When the World League of American Football’s London Monarchs played at Tottenham’s old stadium, White Hart Lane, they had to play on a 93-yard field. (The end zones were very small.) The new stadium has locker rooms big enough to fit 50 guys and an artificial turf football field under its grass soccer pitch, which retracts. The NFL is committed to playing games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for a decade.

This is a valiant idea. It’s hard to imagine football becoming more popular in the U.S., where it already dominates the sports and cultural landscape. But there are no other countries on Earth where American football is the most popular sport. While this experiment makes sense, though, the league’s execution has been baffling: Whether by choice or accident, the NFL has shipped the ugliest games imaginable overseas.

Sunday brings the 30th NFL game played in London. None of those 30 will have featured two teams with winning records. In any season, roughly half of the league’s teams have winning records, so you would expect about 25 percent of games to be between teams with winning records. There are 14 NFL games in Week 6, and five fit that description. How could they play 30 games in London and not have a single one between two winning teams? Is the NFL taking the piss?

This year, the NFL is bringing the Brits its worst set of games yet. None of the four teams playing in London have winning records. Last week, the 1-3 Jets faced off against the 1-3 Falcons. Absolutely dreadful, right? (I feel like British people say “absolutely dreadful” a lot.) You’d think that England got enough of the Jets during the four years when Jets owner Woody Johnson served as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. But no. We keep exposing our strongest international ally to our trashest football team.

Somehow, it gets worse. This Sunday, the 1-4 Dolphins will play in London against the 0-5 Jaguars. That’s right: We’re sending Urban Meyer to England. Keep him away from the pubs.

It would be bad foreign policy if another nation agreed to import food from American farms and we sent them boat after boat filled with rancid, expired meat. So why do we continue to export our rancid, expired football teams? Let’s break it down.

How Bad Are the London Games?

No matter how you slice it, the average London game has been awful:

  • There has never been a London game between two teams that went on to make the playoffs. Between 2007 and 2019, 12.3 percent of NFL games were played between two playoff-bound teams. Using that number, you’d expect about three or four of the 30 London games to fall into this category. Instead: zero.
  • Of the 29 London games to date, 15 have been decided by double digits. So it’s not just that the teams have been bad. It’s that more than half the games played between these bad teams haven’t been particularly close.
  • There have been 21 teams that played in London that finished that season with a winning record. But 16 of these teams were matched up against squads that went on to finish with losing records. Even in the rare instances when good teams do head across the pond, they are pitted against bad teams and compete in trash games.
  • Only one Super Bowl winner has ever played in London: the 2007 Giants, who went 10-6 during the regular season before going on to pull a miraculous upset against the Patriots.
  • Under the old playoff format, 12 of 32 teams made the playoffs. If none of the four disasters to play in London this year qualify, just 28.3 percent of teams that the NFL sent overseas will have gone on to the postseason. Sorry to Falcons fans for preemptively assuming your team won’t make the playoffs … and for mentioning that number. It’s not my fault! I’m sorry! The math just worked out that way!

Who’s the Worst Team Ever to Play in London?

This is hard, because there have been so many bad teams sent to London. Only one NFL team to play in London has finished 13-3 or better—the 2017 Vikings, led by Case Keenum. Meanwhile, seven London teams have gone 3-13 or worse, including three that finished with the NFL’s worst record.

There are a lot of honorable mentions here: the 2019 Bengals, who went 2-14 to win the tank battle for Joe Burrow; the 2007 Dolphins, whose 1-15 record got head coach Cam Cameron fired after just one season; the 2011 Buccaneers, who allowed the sixth-most points in NFL history; and the 2016 Rams, who broke head coach Jeff Fisher’s streak of going 7-9 by falling to 4-12 and getting him fired.

But there can be only one winner (loser?), and the answer is obvious: the 2017 Browns, the pinnacle of the football Process, who finished 0-16 while ranking 31st in offense and 32nd in defense. The Browns, of course, were more than happy to give up a home game during a season that they were actively trying to lose. Which brings us to our next question.

Why Are All the London Games So Bad?

The broad crappiness of these games actually makes perfect sense if you understand how the NFL decides which teams play in London. That is, the NFL doesn’t decide which teams play in London. The league leaves that up to the teams, who volunteer to give up one of their home games.

Teams are only willing to give up a home game if they don’t have a lot to lose. If you have a good football team, you don’t want to give up a home game for competitive reasons. Losing home-field advantage could limit your odds of making the playoffs.

From a financial perspective, the NFL reimburses teams for the losses associated with giving up a home game, and pays them an additional $1 million. So what this really comes down to is who is willing to take a decreased chance of winning for a guaranteed chance at $1 million?

The money element not only explains why the home teams in London games are bad, but also why the road teams are bad. The teams willing to give away their home games give away only the least profitable matchups. Teams are likely to sell out when playing divisional rivals, the best teams in the league, or teams with large traveling fan bases. They probably won’t sell out when hosting mediocre teams without a lot of fans. So teams go through their schedules and agree to ship their least enticing home game overseas. The Packers, with a large national fan base, are the only team that has never played an international game—not only are they unwilling to give up a game at Lambeau Field, but their opponents don’t want to give up the revenue they’d pull in by having Cheeseheads fill their stadium.

So that’s how the London schedule is made: Bad teams take some cash to let the NFL ship their least exciting games abroad. It’s similar to how British cuisine works: take a food item nobody in their right mind would want to order, and then search around the pantry for the least appetizing things to serve with it. That’s how you get jellied eels, or Jets-Falcons.

Is the NFL Doing Anything to Improve These Games?

At first, the NFL hoped that teams would sign up to play in London for the good of the game and the opportunity to build a fan base overseas. That clearly didn’t get the job done.

So eventually the league began to incentivize teams. If a team wants to host the Super Bowl and reap the financial rewards that come with it, that franchise has to play in London. The Rams, Buccaneers, and Falcons are all recent London game participants who were awarded the big game.

If a team wants to relocate to a new city or play in a temporary venue, it also has to play internationally. They’re probably happy to do so—nothing hampers home attendance like telling your local fans you don’t love them and want to make more money elsewhere. The Raiders played in London in 2018 and 2019 before moving from Oakland to Las Vegas.

But the NFL has agreed to a more equitable solution that will finally force good teams to play in London: Starting in 2022, there will be a divisional rotation in which a different division plays overseas games each year. This minimizes competitive imbalance: There’s less of a disadvantage to giving up a home game when the other three teams in your division also must do it. And now that the regular season is 17 games long, teams will still get to host eight home games even if they ship a game across the pond.

Why the Hell Are the Jaguars Always Involved?

Blake Bortles deserves a crown instead of a helmet, for he is the true King of England. He has 1,209 passing yards in London; no one else has more than 647. He leads all players in British passing touchdowns, completions, and quarterback wins. Unfortunately, the exchange rates are brutal.

The Jaguars have become semipermanent residents in London. Since Shahid Khan bought the franchise in 2012 they’ve played in London virtually every year in which they’ve been allowed. They were supposed to play two London games last year, but those were canceled during the pandemic.

So why are they there so often? For one, Jacksonville is small—only Buffalo and Green Bay have smaller populations among NFL locales within city limits. The Jags franchise is young—only the Texans made their debut more recently. And the key factor is they’ve pretty much always sucked. Only the Lions and Browns have worse records since 2000. So they’re a team from a small city without a historically established fan base that loses approximately 10 games per year. People have long made fun of Jaguars fans for not going to football games, but considering the circumstances, their fans are alarmingly passionate.

When Khan bought the team in 2012, he decided to go to London. He also owns a British soccer team, Fulham, which is perpetually in a cycle of being relegated from and promoted back up to the Premier League. (This would happen to the Jags if the NFL had relegation.) Khan likes to make a big weekend of the London NFL games, flying to see the Jags and Fulham and hosting parties on his extremely big yacht. Peter King followed him around in 2017 and went into great detail about how expensive Khan’s champagne is.

Khan explained his strategy to King: While most teams fear the financial repercussions of losing a home game, the Jags make more from a London game than from playing in Jacksonville. King reported that the Jags make 15 percent of their annual revenue from each London game, and that they have the eighth-most London-based fans of any NFL team. The NFL gave the Jags exclusive rights to market in England, while other teams are allowed to market only their specific games. They even have an office there.

Khan said that the Jaguars’ London contract expired after the 2020 season, but they play there again this Sunday. It feels like he would move the team to London if he could, but Khan, who has spent a decent amount of money renovating Jacksonville’s stadium, denies this. He says the extra money generated from playing in London is meant to boost the long-term viability of the Jaguars in Jacksonville. It’s tortured logic—and why, exactly, would someone with $7 billion and a mega-yacht depend on a few spare millions to keep the team in one place?

Putting down roots in London to make life in Jacksonville easier is like, I don’t know, hiring a college football coach with a history of team culture issues to win games in the NFL. It seems backward.

Why London?

This has always eaten at me. I pay a lot of attention to the spread of American football outside the U.S. Surprisingly, our complicated sport is thriving in many places across the globe! England does have an NFL subculture that’s profiled every time the league plays there, but it’s not the hub of foreign football fandom. According to Sportico, an NFL survey found that Brazil has the most NFL fans of any country besides the United States. The U.K. didn’t even crack the top five.

The European country with the most NFL fans is Germany. That’s why NFL Europe started out with teams in England, Scotland, and Spain and ended with five teams in Germany and one in the Netherlands. That league was drawing about 10,000 fans a game in England and about 30,000 a game in Germany. If you need a visual of what I’m talking about, here’s the most recent championship of Germany’s domestic football league, which looks reasonably like an NFL game: a modern stadium, tens of thousands of raucous fans, and a slick broadcast with nice graphics. Here’s the British equivalent, which looks reasonably like a Division III game: a few hundred people gathered on a field with soccer markings on a YouTube livestream.

I don’t know why the NFL chose England. My guess is that the league probably didn’t think much about it. London sounds prestigious, and it’s easier than going to some place where the official language isn’t English. This is basically the same reason MLB played games in England a few years ago, despite there being dozens of countries where baseball is more popular. The league is planning on playing future games in Germany. Hopefully we don’t send the Jaguars.

What’s the Worst London Game Ever?

This is what you were waiting for: a rundown of astonishingly horrendous football in London. Jameis Winston once threw five interceptions in a game there. Case Keenum once threw four. There was a contest in which Carson Palmer got injured and the Drew Stanton–led Cardinals lost by a score of 33-0. The majority of the NFL London games have been bad. But these three really exemplify what this experiment is all about.

3. Bengals 27, Washington 27 (October 30, 2016)

This was a close game—but closeness doesn’t equal goodness. After these teams went to overtime, their drives went like this:

  • Punt
  • Punt
  • Missed field goal
  • Fumble
  • End of game

The defining moment was a missed field goal by Dustin Hopkins, a chip shot from 34 yards. A German TV reporter tried interviewing Hopkins about it afterward, but a member of Washington’s PR staff sprinted into the frame to keep the German public from hearing about Hopkins’s failure:

At least British sports fans are accustomed to draws—and to extremely important late missed kicks.

2. Saints 20, Dolphins 0 (October 1, 2017)

Jay Cutler didn’t want to go to London. That was clear when his Dolphins put up 186 yards of total offense while committing 11 penalties that cost them 90 yards. At one point, Miami ran a play out of the wildcat formation, leading to perhaps the most perfect moment of Cutler’s NFL career:

1. Giants 16, Dolphins 13 (October 28, 2007)

Remember earlier in this article when I mentioned that the only Super Bowl–winning team to play in London was the 2007 Giants? Remember how one of the worst teams to play in London was the 2007 Dolphins, who went 1-15? Since ’07, there have been just five games between a team that went on to win the Super Bowl and a team that went on to receive the no. 1 NFL draft pick. One took place in London, and it was—once more, with feeling—absolutely dreadful.

Eli Manning went 8-of-22 passing for 59 yards. No touchdowns, no interceptions—just spraying throws to Yorkshire and Cornwall and all the other parts of England where no Giants receivers were. He did, however, score the Giants’ only rushing touchdown of the day, because the 2007 Dolphins were the type of team incapable of stopping Eli Manning from getting loose for 10-yard scores. Miami’s quarterback in this game was Cleo Lemon, who at one point wound up to throw and whiffed, allowing Michael Strahan to pick the ball up. The field at Wembley disintegrated, as large chunks of turf came out of the ground on virtually every play.

A good team played badly; a bad team played worse. Neither team gained 250 yards—in the entire 2020 NFL season, that happened only twice. The final score lends a false sense of competitiveness, as the Giants were up 16-6 before the Dolphins got into the end zone with a rubbish-time TD. (Rubbish time is British garbage time.) This was the very first NFL game in London. It showed that games in London were cursed from the start.