The NFL will take over London for the 18th time — and the 11th consecutive year — this weekend when the Baltimore Ravens take on veteran overseas travelers the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. The game will be the first of four set in England this season, the most that have been played in a calendar year.
For the NFL, the additional game — there have been three in London each of the past three seasons — represents a concerted effort to expand the popularity and global reach of its brand.1 For the British, it’s another chance to watch lousy football.
It’s no secret that the teams that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has sent have been overwhelmingly bad — and we aren’t just talking about the Jaguars. According to FiveThirtyEight’s pre-game Elo ratings, the harmonic mean of both teams’ ratings — a balanced measure of matchup quality that can better detect when both teams in a game are either good or bad — has been below average in 13 of the 17 games played in London.2 On top of that, all four games to be played in London this year will be below average, according to the team’s current Elo ratings.
London NFL games have been consistently below average
The harmonic mean of the Elo ratings of the teams in each matchup compared with 1500, roughly the rating of an average NFL team
|YEAR||DESIGNATED AWAY||ELO||DESIGNATED HOME||ELO||HARMONIC MEAN||+/- AVERAGE|
|2015||New York Jets||1478||Miami||1449||1463||-37|
|2016||N.Y. Giants||1466||L.A. Rams||1481||1473||-27|
|2009||New England||1630||Tampa Bay||1375||1492||-8|
|2012||New England||1678||St. Louis||1393||1522||22|
|2008||San Diego||1600||New Orleans||1470||1532||32|
The Jaguars are a big part of this, of course. Jacksonville has played in London four times, and the Elo rating of each of those four Jaguar teams ranks in the bottom five (among all 34 teams). Joining them in that bottom five are the 2014 Oakland Raiders. And it turns out that the Raiders’ game against the Miami Dolphins that year was the worst London matchup so far based on our Elo ratings. That game was so dreary that those Raiders, who fell to 0-4 after losing to Miami, fired their coach, Dennis Allen, not long after their plane touched down in the U.S. Perhaps by no coincidence, the Dolphins coach that year, Joe Philbin, would be fired the next season after starting 1-3. Philbin’s last game would be a loss to the Jets … in London.
But not every game played in London has been between NFL bottom feeders — sometimes a good team makes the trip (and, sure, plays a bottom feeder). The Brits have experienced Tom Brady and the New England Patriots twice, as well as the San Francisco 49ers the season after their latest Super Bowl appearance. But if you remove those three teams, the average London team,3 including this year’s Ravens and Jags, has an Elo rating of 1444. That’s roughly on par with this year’s 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals.
NFL fans will generally tune in regardless of who is playing. So perhaps the NFL’s intention was that the consistently poor quality of opponents would be scratched out by competitive, exciting contests. If that’s the case, the plan is generally working.
Blowout or bust
The point differential for regular-season NFL games played in London
|YEAR||DESIGNATED AWAY||POINTS||DESIGNATED HOME||POINTS||POINT DIFF||WON BY ONE SCORE|
|2007||New York Giants||13||Miami||10||3||✓|
|2008||San Diego||32||New Orleans||37||5||✓|
|2016||New York Giants||17||L.A. Rams||10||7||✓|
|2015||New York Jets||27||Miami||14||13|
|2009||New England||35||Tampa Bay||7||28|
|2012||New England||45||St. Louis Rams||7||38|
Ten of the 17 games — or 59 percent — have been decided by one score. That might not sound so thrilling, but just 35 percent of all NFL games played since 2007 have been decided by 8 points or fewer. One of last year’s London games was so tightly matched, no one won it. (Fortunately for Cincinnati and Washington, they were playing in the one NFL location where fans are content with a tie.)
Low-quality games usually lead to drops in attendance toward the end of the season. Not in London, though. All but two games have attracted a crowd of more than 80,000, with the highest NFL London crowd at 84,488 — for last year’s tie at Wembley. To put that in context, that average draw would have been the second-highest home attendance of any team in the league last season (behind only the Dallas Cowboys).
As Goodell continues to push some of his most mediocre teams onto the international scene, it turns out that they’re rewarding fans with some of the league’s most competitive play.