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Will NFL Fans Get Tired Of Waking Up Early For London Games?

August 15, 2017
We've covered the Baltimore Ravens' first trip to London extensively in this month's PressBox. Despite the fact that I won't be making the trip, I actually think the jaunt is very cool -- even if long overdue. 

For the team, it's an opportunity to market itself in an area in which it's had no footprint. For the players, it's a chance to build their brands in a place with no specific "home team." 

Ravens offensive tackle and London native Jermaine Eluemunor said he became a fan of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning just because he watched him playing at Wembley Stadium growing up. And for the fans, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel abroad and root for your favorite team. (Well, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would prefer it's not a "once-in-a-lifetime" trip, but instead a fairly regular experience for all fans in the coming years, but that's a different topic.)

There's nothing not to like here. Even a cynic like me can understand that. 

Well, maybe except for one thing. 

As the league has played more games over the pond in recent years, it has settled on trying to establish a new Sunday morning TV window. Three of the four International Series games in England this season will kick off at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time. The only one that won't kick off that early is the Arizona Cardinals-Los Angeles Rams game, which features two far western teams. Wisely, the league won't ask fans to wake up as early as 6:30 a.m. to enjoy that one. 

Trying to create a new television slot is understandable. The league has been searching for new revenue streams, and a national TV game with no competition (outside of the other pregame shows, which are largely irrelevant on days of London games) can provide just that. I can't say definitively how the games perform with advertisers, but considering the league has stuck with those times, it's reasonable to assume they've performed well. 

But what concerns me is that as the league plays more of these games -- the four in London this season are the most in history, and the NFL has been consistent about exploring other markets for future games -- it risks alienating fans in the process. Sure, it will be fun for fans to gather at area establishments early in the morning of the Ravens' Sept. 24 matchup for revelry, but fans with closely held religious beliefs will be torn about whether to watch the game or attend church. Local college students may well struggle to be awake in time for the game after whatever they may have been doing the night before. 

And sure, it's easy to say, "Well, that's a choice they'll have to make for one game," and not care otherwise, but it goes beyond that. Among other things, the national relevance of each game has elevated football to prominence in comparison to the other pro sports leagues, where games are largely viewed as regional. While prime-time football games end late enough that some fans will choose to check out early, every NFL game is played for as large an American audience as possible. And with each team playing only 16 games all season, the importance of each one helps to drive that incredible audience to each game. 

The NFL is essentially punting the entire Pacific Time Zone when it schedules a game at 9:30 a.m. Eastern. Making things worse, fantasy football players have to deal with the issue of "will they play or won't they?" for players listed as questionable. The league is asking fantasy football owners on the West Coast to wake up at 6 a.m. to check to see if their guys are active. That's simply unreasonable.

I am not naive enough to think the league hasn't done extensive research on the topic, including cost/benefit analyses. I am also not naive enough to think the league hasn't operated with a fair amount of hubris at times in recent years. And there are a number of people it needs to consider when it schedules these games, including media partners in the U.S. and Great Britain.

But the NFL has shown it's OK with playing these games at 1 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. local time in London) and will do it again for the Cardinals-Rams game. There's no reason why it couldn't do that for all of the London games -- particularly if it's going to keep expanding the international slate in the coming years. 

It won't change anything about this year's game, however. So hopefully you'll be able to get at least one Bloody Mary in you before kickoff. Remember, the secret is that there is no such thing as too much Worcestershire sauce.

Issue 236: August 2017