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NFL International Series: Why American football loves London

By Tom Sweetman, CNN
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The NFL juggernaut is back in London. Here cheerleaders perform at Wembley Stadium during one of last year's games when San Francisco 49ers beat Jacksonville Jaguars 42-10. The NFL juggernaut is back in London. Here cheerleaders perform at Wembley Stadium during one of last year's games when San Francisco 49ers beat Jacksonville Jaguars 42-10.
HIDE CAPTION
Glitz & glam
London calling
Sellout
The hosts
London franchise?
Cool Britannia
Street festival
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The NFL International Series is back in London this weekend
  • For the first time, Wembley Stadium will hold three games over six weeks
  • Oakland Raiders kick things off against Miami Dolphins Sunday
  • Detroit Lions then face Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars play Dallas Cowboys

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(CNN) -- Bigger and better than before -- that's the promise as the NFL International Series returns to London this weekend, and hopes are rising that Britain will one day have its own permanent franchise.

Wembley Stadium will host American football's overseas showpiece for the eighth year running and, for the first time, the home of English soccer will welcome three regular-season games, spread over the next six weeks.

Building on the two games it held last year and the one it hosted initially, overseas fans will get a rare glimpse of the United States' most popular sport.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed as early as February that the games had already sold out, meaning 270,000 spectators will witness the Oakland Raiders take on the Miami Dolphins, the Detroit Lions face the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars play the Dallas Cowboys.

Why is the NFL staging games in England?

It's all about growing the sport abroad and attracting more fans worldwide.

The league has a long history of trying to extend its borders, dating back to 1952 when the Fuerstenfeldbruck Eagles defeated the Burtonwood Bullets in the "United States Air Forces in Europe" game at the old Wembley Stadium.

The NFL made major strides when launching the "American Bowl" in 1986 -- a series of preseason exhibition games at Wembley, which soon expanded to include Tokyo, Montreal, Berlin, Barcelona, Dublin, Mexico City, Toronto, Monterrey, Vancouver, Sydney and Osaka.

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That kept running until 2005, when Goodell announced the league would replace it with the NFL International Series -- the key difference being that matches would now be regular-season games rather than just exhibitions.

And following on from 2005's "Futbol Americano" in Mexico -- the first regular-season game to be held outside the U.S. -- the maiden International Series was staged at Wembley in 2007, with the New York Giants beating Miami Dolphins, and it has been held there every year since. It will continue to do so until at least 2016.

"When we heard we were accepted to play this game we were all excited about it, just the opportunity to come to London and to play a game that's growing each and every year and to be part of it is a wonderful feeling for us," Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch told CNN ahead of his side's game against the Falcons on October 26.

Has the series proved to be a success?

The NFL has gone from strength to strength in the United Kingdom since 2007, as television ratings continue to grow, while more and more youngsters are getting involved with the sport.

The International Series does not just stop with the action at Wembley, though, as a whole host of activities are organized in the buildup to the matches, including the award-winning "NFL on Regent Street."

Almost 600,000 people packed London's famous thoroughfare last year as the street turned into a fan festival for the day.

"It's an incredible experience," said Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr of his time in London ahead of the November 9 clash against the Jaguars.

"The weather is beautiful, the experience so far is incredible, it's a great opportunity to come out here and represent my organization and the NFL."

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But with the NFL bandwagon and Goodell himself arriving in London under a cloud after the Ray Rice scandal, the league will be more determined than ever for the International Series to run smoothly.

How does the Wembley experience compare to U.S. NFL games?

What's so unique about the International Series is that it allows fans access to a sport they may not often have the chance to experience live. According to the NFL, only 3% of fans at recent games have been Americans.

"I hear the atmosphere in the stadium and the environment is similar to a Super Bowl experience," Carr adds.

"I was at the Super Bowl as a fan in New Orleans and I know the level of electricity and excitement in the air. And I know once the teams start rolling into town, this is going be pretty exciting around here both for the players and the fans."

Who are the home teams and who are the away teams in the NFL International Series?

The Jaguars, the Raiders and the Falcons are this year's hosts.

The Jaguars were the home side last year -- losing to the San Francisco 49ers -- and will be until 2016, having become the first team to make a multi-year commitment to playing in the series, replacing the St. Louis Rams, who backed out of a similar deal in 2012.

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Teams that give up a home game in the U.S. to play in London are often sides that have struggled in attracting supporters to their own stadiums, and so are enticed by the financial incentives of hosting matches overseas.

A "home team" can make the trip abroad every year for up to five years, while an "away team" can only make the same journey once every five years.

"Every year there's a few games you look forward to," said Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake ahead of Sunday's game against the Raiders. "Obviously this is one."

"I knew right before I joined the Dolphins, in 2007 they came over here, so I figured we had a couple of years to wait to be picked again. So I'm glad it's this year and I know a lot of guys in the locker room feel the same way."

The idea of using certain regular sides as "home teams" was one proposed by Goodell in an effort to build an overseas fan base for those sides and to ultimately raise the prospect of a permanent NFL team in the United Kingdom.

So Britain so may get an NFL franchise?

One day, that could certainly be the case.

NFL bosses are believed to be satisfied with the league's current 32-team model, and would prefer an existing side to make the move to London, rather than creating a new franchise.

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The Jaguars are reported to be the most likely team to be relocated, given their current agreement to play multiple games in London and that owner Shahid Khan also runs London soccer team Fulham.

Surely the logistics are a nightmare?

The Atlantic could prove to be a stumbling block.

There does, however, seem to be a growing belief in the world of NFL that the teams can make this work.

"Obviously there's travel (which is a problem). You could maybe play games here, have an off-week, being able to travel to the States, maybe stay in the States for a little bit longer to play some teams in the States and then come back," Detroit's Tulloch proposes.

"After having three games that are sold out in London this year, it's just a matter of time (until a UK franchise is a reality)."

"Maybe it's still some years down the road, but this is the way the NFL has evolved," Dallas' Carr adds.

"The direction the game has taken, we're getting fans from all over and hopefully we can make the step in this direction and allow the fans to regularly just feel and see the passion that we have for this game."

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