This past weekend saw the Jacksonville Jaguars roll into London for their annual road show and a game against the Dallas Cowboys at a packed Wembley Stadium. As a Fulham fan and one of the NFL in general, the events of the past week have provided insight into the on-going relationship between Shahid Khan’s two sports clubs, as well as the still considerable differences between them.
Nowhere is the difference in cultures more obvious than in something so simple as the pronunciation of the word Jaguars. At Wembley on Sunday the stadium announcer called for us to welcome “Your 2014 Jacksonville Jagwars” onto the field, a far cry from the recent Jaguar car advert featuring the full vowel English annunciation of Mark Strong, Tom Hiddleston and Sir Ben Kingsley.
Pronunciation of Jaguar aside, the showpiece game at Wembley was the embodiment the NFL as a spectacle. There was Joss Stone and Jeff Beck, fireworks aplenty and Boris Johnson performing to coin toss. Big screen replays were “Texas Replays” and even the hour long pregame time when the players warmed up was the “DiscoverAmerica.com” Player Warm Up. It is cliché to say everything about the NFL is bigger and brasher than it’s English equivalent, but as with most clichés there is some underlying truth. Indeed the entire event was unlike anything we’ve got in this country, and in its own different way is absolutely marvellous.
Before kick off, the Jaguars mascot, Jaxson De Ville, abseiled / bungee jumped from the Wembley roof down to the pitch and proceeded to get the entire crowd chanting “Let’s Go Jaguars”. There is no elevation at Craven Cottage from which Billy the Badger could make such an entrance, and even Billy’s weekly half time welcome from new mic-man Ivan seems a bit contrived in comparison. Whereas Jaxson’s daredevil antics earned him a standing ovation, Billy the Badger has only ever made the headlines for a brief obsession with break dancing a few years back. The British predisposition is just a tad more reserved I suppose.
Whilst there are no material ramifications of one mascot’s antics versus another, the way they are appreciated is indicative of the environment they are in. US sports can almost at times be as much social activities as they are pure sporting theatre; sporting events are also more than just the sport, at Wembley, with fans of all teams in attendance creating a heightened environment of neutrality, the off-field entertainment became even more noticeable. The constant off field entertainment was there to keep the crowd energised in between the short sharp bursts of action in which the majority in attendance did not have true emotional investment.
American Football in particular is an event for which the game is only part of the day. That a vast proportion of the near 90,000 crowd spent the afternoon in the Wembley car park at the official tailgate event proves this. All the extras do not at all mean fans view the result of the games themselves as insignificant, however losing does not carry the same death spectre with which it does in football.
This is a polar difference between the situations Khan has inherited in Fulham and Jacksonville. Should the Jaguars continue to underperform, the team will be rewarded with a higher draft pick from which to select one of this year’s premier college players coming into the sport. The draft system is balanced so that the worst teams get the first picks in order to promote fair competition, so you have the not unlikely scenario that fans will not mind their team losing in order to bring a potential superstar to the team via a draft. Indeed, what is one win now, when a superstar draftee could mean plenty of wins down the line. The ramification of failure simply carries a different price.
Fulham have already paid that high price for failure, with relegation to the Championship last May. Relegation has itself presented a different series of challenges for the Fulham – Jaguars relationship. We played a friendly at EverBank Field, home of the Jaguars, in July, but our fall in status meant the match fell behind a concert in the promotional billing. Whilst half of the Jaguars cheerleading squad, the Roar of the Jaguars, performed at a cold Craven Cottage on Saturday, there has otherwise been a distinct lack of cross promotion between the teams this week.
Had a great night at the Jaguars game with the lads. Shame about the result but a great atmosphere! pic.twitter.com/d3S95FmBCq
— Dan Burn (@Danburn3) November 9, 2014
Fulham players and staff got tickets to the match on Sunday and Wednesday night’s Fulham game with Blackpool was sponsored by the “delegation from Jacksonville”. However, there has been a distinct and noticeable lack of cross-selling on this visit. The Jaguars stayed at the Grove Hotel outside Watford, the customary base for the designated home team for the NFL’s Wembley games, and made no use of Motspur Park. Player appearances were limited to official NFL events. This was a business trip for the Jaguars, and in the short and intense NFL season, there is little time for frippery and certainly little time for your sibling team who are outside the glamour of the Premier League.
The sides do however have their similarities. On the Wembley screens on Sunday we were treated to two video excerpts of “Legendary Moments” from Jaguars history; one a blowout victory on route to a loss in the final game before the Superbowl a decade ago, with the other a last second win in a meaningless regular season game. The relative insignificance of these moments was not lost on the Wembley crowd but shows the similarity to Fulham. Neither of us are teams steeped in a long tradition of success. Although Fulham and Jacksonville are teams of different ages, our position have nearly always been as underdog.
Fulham compete with Chelsea, Brentford, AFC Wimbledon and QPR for West London’s football fans. The Jaguars might be the only team in their city but not only have a pair of other NFL teams in Florida, the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but also suffer from having several traditionally dominant colleges located in-state. Between them, the University of Miami Hurricanes, University of Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles likely command a far wider and more passionate legion of fans than the state’s three NFL teams. Indeed the relatively minor, in American distances, 75 miles between The Florida Gators’ Griffin Stadium in Gainsville and EverBank Field in Jacksonville means there is a direct competitor for fans nearby. Throw in other teams like the University of Central Florida Knights, for whom Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles used to play, and the Jaguars’ fight for domestic attention becomes quite obvious.
The differences between College Football and the NFL are vast, not least in the cost to attend, so any comparison is somewhat rudimentary, but in simple terms, growing the Jaguars fanbase domestically is likely to prove impossible unless the team suddenly becomes a lot more talented and successful than it is at the moment. What Shahid Khan has done in Jacksonville since taking charge three years ago appears to be an attempt to solidify the fanbase he has there whilst then using the games in London as a way of expanding their fanbase internationally.
Much has been written and said about the purchase of Fulham as a way to establish a network here, but the lack of in your face promotion between the two teams of late suggests it is not as one dimensional as simply hoping for a few fans to jump on the bandwagon. Undoubtedly being outside the Premier League does not help matters, but it strips the relationship back to a more cerebral one, where knowledge sharing plays a premium role.
There has to be a concern though for Khan and his team, that the underperformance of both teams will hamper any efforts to grow fanbases on either opposite side of the Atlantic. For all the Bortles, Cyprien or Shorts III jerseys that were on display at Wembley on Sunday, a few more years of coming here to lose, and the number of fans willing to spend £75 on a replica shirt will soon dry up. The same can probably be said of Fulham in Jacksonville. If we are to play an annual friendly in Florida, without Premier League exposure, there is hardly likely to be a queue of new fans waiting for their Christensen or Williams shirts.
On Sunday, I went to Wembley as a NFL fan cheering for the Jaguars rather than as a Jaguars fan. As a Washington Redskins fan I sported a Robert Griffin III jersey in deference to the fact I hoped the Cowboys would lose, but was offered little to persuade me to pay the £75 to switch to the black and teal of the Jaguars. Indeed the NFL is famous for the amount of costs it levies on fans. As an example, parking passes for the Dallas Cowboys’ next home game in a fortnight are currently changing hands for a minimum of $40 on ticket re-selling websites. That’s not a match ticket, that’s a parking ticket! Considering most NFL stadiums are located in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gargantuan parking lots, the cost of a day out can become a lot more prohibitive. One suspects a US version of the Cost of Football survey would make for eye gouging reading.
Sunday’s game itself was a largely one sided affair as feared. Jacksonville made a good start, scoring the game’s opening touchdown with a Denard Robinsion run, but proceeded to hand Dallas the initiative on a silver platter. The ironically named Ace Sanders dropped a simple punt return, gifting the Cowboys their route back into the game, before a fumble from the aforementioned Robinson helped them move into the distance. What followed was a veritable annihilation that was only stopped as the game wore on by the Cowboys willingness to play clock consuming running football as soon as the game was effectively over as a contest.
Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley and his defence would have been wise to spend Saturday afternoon at Twickenham picking up some tips on technique watching England take on the All Blacks. Jacksonville’s open field tackling technique left a lot to be desired and enabled Cowboys running back Demarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant to have the freedom of the field. The NFL’s obsession with speed and power, at the expense of true technique becomes apparent when a good team takes on a bad one. Whilst Jacksonville’s players might have been as fast as those in white and blue, they were significantly inferior on the day.
As Sunday’s game wore on, it descended into the mundane reality of a routine Dallas win. Those of us in the crowd filtered home, left contemplating whether or not next year’s somewhat underwhelming fixtures at Wembley are worth the £80 or so pounds it costs per ticket. Undoubtedly having Dallas as the visiting team was a coup for the International Series. The self-proclaimed “America’s Team” bring star power that Jacksonville will probably never be able to match. The image of Shahid Khan mingling with Boris Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones before the game shows the value of this fixture to the Jaguars. Jones is a prominent figure in the NFL and as powerful an owner as there is, he even appeared as himself in a recurring arc on hit tv show Entourage; if the London games have his blessing, you can bet they’re here to stay.
For now, as a one off, the spectacle is worth the ticket price, but I’m not sure I’d go more than once a year. The novelty seems yet to wear off though. All three games this year were sell outs, which is a statistic the Football Association could only dream of when talking about England’s home games.
Sooner or later though, the Jaguars will need to start winning. Even the British can only support the underdog for so long.