As the NFL schedule release drew closer, there was plenty of anticipation to see which teams would be joining the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons, and Arizona Cardinals in participating in the 2020 leg of the International Series. However, on Sunday rumors began to intensify that in the current climate the International Series was likely to be postponed for this year. Those rumors amplified on Monday as Adam Schefter tweeted that a league source doesn’t “think any international games (are) coming this year.”
NFL plans to release its preseason and regular-season schedule later this week, but one league source said Sunday that he doesn’t “think any international games (are) coming this year.”
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 4, 2020
Following the report from Pro Football Network’s Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline in the Day 1 blog of the 2020 NFL Draft, it was reported that the league was considering measures such as exclusive jets and hotels for NFL teams. The NFL’s International Series has long divided opinion amongst American-based fans of the NFL, who understand the commercial gain but are hesitant to see teams giving up just one of eight home games in any given season.
With the news of a postponement to the NFL International Series being confirmed on May 4th, let’s take a look back at the origins of the series and its subsequent expansion in the last decade.
The origin of the International Series
The NFL began experimenting with playing games abroad as early as 1950, but it was not until 1986 that games in other countries became a regular event. Between 1986 and 2005 at least one preseason game was played in another country every year, with these being known as the “American Bowl”. In total, there were 40 games played in eight countries as part of the American Bowl series.
After the 2005 American Bowl games, the league shifted its focus from hosting preseason games abroad to the potential of hosting regular-season games outside of America. 2005 saw the first-ever regular-season game played outside of America as the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 in front of over 100,000 spectators at the Stadio Azteca in Mexico City. The game was dubbed “Futbol Americano” and is, therefore, not considered part of what would become the International Series.
In October 2006, the NFL owners approved a plan for up to two regular-season games a year played outside of America. This led to the first International Series game as the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom. Despite terrible weather, more than 81,000 spectators witnessed a 13-10 Giants victory on their way to winning the Super Bowl.
Growing the game globally
The International Series game in 2007 was the first of six individual NFL games hosted in Wembley Stadium. However, they were not the only games hosted on foreign soil during that period. The Buffalo Bills received unanimous backing from the NFL to play a game per season in Toronto’s Rogers Centre and played a single regular-season game in Canada every year from 2008 to 2013. Additionally, the Bills hosted one of their two preseason games in Toronto in both 2008 and 2010. However, these games were not considered a part of the official International Series by the NFL.
The initial five year deal from 2008 to 2012 was extended for a further five years. However, after the first game of the five-year deal in 2013 the following seasons game was postponed before the deal was canceled in 2014. The cancellation came on the back of falling attendances and speculation that large ticket giveaways had been the reason for the high attendance numbers during the first four years of the deal.
The 2012 game in London was supposed to be the first of a three-year commitment from the Los Angeles Rams to play their games at Wembley Stadium. However, the Rams reneged on this commitment, playing only their 2012 home game against the New England Patriots in London as part of that agreement. The Rams’ decision to back out left the opportunity open for the Jacksonville Jaguars to themselves commit to four years of playing home games in London.
That initial four-year commitment has evolved to a point where the Jaguars have played a home game in London every season for the past seven years and had an agreement in place for 2020. However, in February the Jaguars took that commitment one step further by announcing they would play two home games in London on back-to-back weeks. That agreement would have made the Jaguars the first team ever to have played regular-season games on back-to-back weeks outside of America.
Alongside the Jaguars’ commitment to playing games in London, the NFL began adding more games to the schedule to be played in London. 2013 saw two games at Wembley, which quickly became three games in 2014. Perhaps the biggest moment for the International Series came in 2015 with the announcement that the NFL had reached a 10-year agreement with Tottenham Hotspurs to play two games a year at their new stadium. This announcement alongside the Jaguars committing to another four years in London would ensure a minimum of three games a year in London for the foreseeable future.
In 2016, there were once again three games in London, but one of the three games was hosted at Twickenham Stadium. After Twickenham’s test proved successful, the NFL added a fourth game to the schedule for 2017, two at Wembley and two at Twickenham. However, with no further deal at Twickenham and Tottenham’s new stadium not ready, 2018 would see just three games once again, all at Wembley.
2019 would see the return to four games, two at the newly finished Tottenham Stadium, which has a smaller capacity but a purpose-built artificial field, and two at Wembley, on a traditional grass field but with bigger capacity. That same arrangement was carried over into 2020, and it will be interesting to see if the NFL remains committed to four games once the International Series returns in 2021.
After hosting the first-ever regular-season game outside of America in the “Futbol Americano” in 2005, it would take a further 11 years for Mexico to host another regular-season NFL game. In 2016 and 2017 the Oakland Raiders would host the Houston Texans and New England Patriots in the Estadio Azteca.
The 2018 NFL season would see the future of the Mexico leg of the International Series thrown into doubt. Ahead of the game between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, pictures emerged of the pitch looking a mess, with seemingly large holes all over the field. That game would ultimately be moved back to Los Angeles and would end up being the third-highest scoring game in NFL history as the Rams prevailed 54-51 on Monday Night Football.
Despite the struggles of 2018, the NFL re-affirmed its commitment to playing games at the Estadio Azteca as the Los Angeles Chargers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2019 regular-season. The NFL was set once again to return to Mexico for the 2020 season, with the hosts of that very first regular-season game abroad, the Arizona Cardinals, set to return to Mexico for the first time in 15 years.
Ben Rolfe is an editor and writer at Pro Football Network. You can find him on twitter @benrolfe15.