JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Jaguars are going to be England's team.
The NFL and the Jaguars announced Tuesday that the small-market franchise will play one home game in London for four consecutive seasons beginning in 2013 — a step the team believes will broaden its fan base and take some pressure off locals who have mostly failed to fill the stands in recent years.
"I passionately believe the big growth now is going to come from overseas," owner Shad Khan said. "We've got to go where we can leverage and take advantage of some of those things. You've got to fish in ponds where you've got fish in there. We're going to a pond where there are no fishermen."
The Jaguars will play at historic Wembley Stadium, which has hosted one NFL game annually since 2007.
"We want to create an identity, a bold, ambitious franchise that is aggressive and forward-thinking on the field and away from the field," Khan said. "We want to be the kind of franchise players want to belong to, sponsors want to be part of, and Jacksonville is proud of. ... The key point is to sell Jacksonville to the world. We are a well-kept secret, but after today, that's not going to be the case."
By all accounts, the Jaguars are the NFL's least popular team. They rank at or near the bottom of the league in website hits as well as Twitter and Facebook interactions. Although Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental United States in terms of land mass, it is home to just 1.3 million people — and that includes several surrounding areas; London alone has 8 million people.
Missing the playoffs in 10 of 12 seasons has made attracting fans a problem in Jacksonville. The team used to pack the stands regularly, even though it plays in a stadium built to house large crowds for the annual Florida-Georgia college football game. But in 2005, the Jaguars decided to cover up nearly 10,000 seats with tarps to reduce capacity and limit television blackouts. Even though the Jaguars haven't blacked out a home game since 2009, they still have struggled to fill EverBank Field.
Playing an annual game in London will reduce season-ticket prices by 10 per cent, possibly making the remaining package a more affordable and enticing option.
Reaction, though, was mixed among the fan base. Some supported the decision and others questioned the team's motives. After all, if the Jaguars become England's team and continue to have issues back home, what's to stop the NFL from moving them across the pond for good?
"You can't fault them if anyone is mad about this," kicker Josh Scobee said. "We can only ask for their support in going over there and ask them to watch it on TV."
The St. Louis Rams had been scheduled to play in London in 2013 and 2014, but they pulled out last week, citing a need to focus on lease negotiations and ease fan discontent.
The Jaguars scooped up the available games — plus some.
"It's just good for the Jaguar brand," tight end Marcedes Lewis said. "It's exciting to go over there and put ourselves on the map worldwide. When I got drafted in 2006, there were some of my family members who didn't even know who the Jaguars were."
Players recognized the major pitfalls — travelling overseas and giving up home games — but no one knocked the decision publicly.
"We know football is the greatest sport in the states, so for fans in other areas who don't get to watch it first hand, it's good for them to experience and see what we all brag about," cornerback Rashean Mathis said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell joined Khan for the announcement, which fittingly came on a grey, rain-soaked day in Jacksonville — typical London weather. Goodell reaffirmed his commitment to expanding to multiple games in England and eventually establishing a franchise there.
"The big issue for us was finding a community that understood that this could be great for the community, wrap their arms around it and say this is a win-win situation," Goodell said.
Khan said the Jaguars are committed to playing all four years at Wembley, even if the team becomes a Super Bowl contender and a hot ticket in Jacksonville.
"I think if you make a commitment, you stick with it," said Khan, who bought the team in November for $770 million. "To me, we're all in."
Khan added that he would consider playing more games overseas after the deal expires in 2016. He also acknowledged that the payoff probably won't be seen immediately. He suggested that Londoners could fall in love with the Jaguars and decide to visit Jacksonville regularly. The ultimate goal, though, would be to have European companies spend millions in Jacksonville.
"If somebody builds a container port, if somebody makes an investment out of Germany or England or Netherlands and they chose Jacksonville, that would be a huge return from my viewpoint," Khan said. "You could have people come here — we've got beautiful golf, weather — instead of vacationing in Miami or some place and they come up here and watch a game or two. That would be a huge return for me."
Coach Mike Mularkey and cornerback Aaron Ross have made the trip before — Ross with the New York Giants in 2007, and Mularkey with the Dolphins that year — and both praised the fans and the experience they gained from making the trip.
"I know Shad's been trying to have people recognize what's going on here in this town," Mularkey said. "I think this is a great opportunity to get it. Obviously going overseas, that's making a statement."