NFL In London

Just past noon on a dreary Saturday in London's posh shopping district and blocks away from the Piccadilly Circus, Colts cheerleaders gyrated on a turf field. Rows of gawking onlookers surrounded them, taking photos with their phones.

Though the scene seemed surreal, it was very much by design.

Showcasing the sport's appeal and glamor through a fan event on Regent Street, the NFL was promoting the game as it makes a strategic push in London.

Colts Cheerleaders In London

"We look forward to having a permanent NFL team here," said Colts owner Jim Irsay. "That's my goal as an owner."

The NFL is just a couple years past the halfway point in its methodical 15-year initiative to have a full-time presence in London.

"We've taken our time," said Mark Waller, NFL Executive Vice President of International. "We've done the right steps to progress."

After the success of the first regular-season game in London -- between the Giants and Dolphins in 2007, the second game -- Chargers and Saints in 2008 -- evaluated the viability of bringing over a West Coast team.

Two London games were played in 2013, and starting in 2014, the NFL began playing three regular-season games in London.

"There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether multiple games would continue to sell out," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorps Limited, a leading sports business consulting firm.

Last season, in 2015, the NFL tested a divisional game -- between the Jets and Dolphins.

London Streets Greet NFL

This year the NFL will hold a game, Giants-Rams on Oct. 23, for the first time at Twickenham Stadium. Less of a destination, the national rugby stadium is in a suburban location, nestled around houses. That will determine whether a game can succeed outside of the major event-like setting of Wembley Stadium.

And beginning in 2018, the NFL will hold two games annually for three years at Tottenham, the English Premier League's new soccer stadium, which will also have a customized football field.

Having taken this deliberate course, the NFL is on pace to have either a full-time team in London or a full season's slate of games there by the early 2020s.

"The growth of the game is what it's all about," declared NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the crowd assembled on Regent Street.

The 15 regular-season games in London from 2007 to 2016 have averaged 83,108 in attendance. But does the average London citizen like football or want a full-time NFL team in their city?

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While driving his black cab to Carnaby Street, George ruminated on football.

"It's pretty much like rugby," he said. "But it's a bit more namby-pamby."

Other issues cited by the many people interviewed for this story were the complexity of the rules, the frequent stoppages in play and the duration of the game.

NFL In London

"It goes on too long," said Peter Feeny, an engineer working on the Tottenham stadium. "I don't know who has three hours to spare."

At the Duke of Kendal pub, Feeny sipped a pint of beer while watching a match of soccer, his preferred sport. Despite his complaints, he said he thought a permanent NFL team in London would be successful.

George and Peter, like most London citizens interviewed, claim soccer and then rugby as their favorite sports.

"The NFL will always assume a secondary position to soccer there," Ganis said, "but the market is strong enough to support multiple sports leagues."

In fact the NFL says that the United Kingdom has 3.5 to four million "avid" NFL fans. That fanbase skews younger with nearly a quarter of them being in the 16-to-24 age group.

Mia, a 19 year-old from South London, fits that demographic. She not only planned to watch the Colts-Jaguars game, but also prefers it to soccer.

"It's better," she said. "It's more interesting."

A group of firefighters congregating in the Covent Garden Piazza also touted football.

Chris, a tight end who started playing for his local team in 1993, has a keychain of Jay Novacek, the tight end who was one of Troy Aikman's favorite targets in the 1990s.

"I'm a Dallas Cowboys fan," Chris said. "Jay Novacek is my idol."

NFL In London

Ranging from flag football in school to those who play every week for their club or university, more than 40,000 people 14 or older play some kind of football, according to the British American Football Association.

Football is Chris' favorite sport, and he got hooked on it from watching Channel 4, which launched a weekly highlights show in London in the 1980s.

But he doesn't want a full-time NFL team in London, and his fellow firefighter, Nick, a Bears fan of 27 years, agrees.

"Anyone that has got love for NFL in this country already has a team," he said. "Every one of those fans already has a team, and you're not going to take them and suddenly get them to support London ... We're not suddenly going to become a London Jaguars fan if that's the plan."

That sentiment should concern the NFL. Although there's clearly growing interest in the game and many would welcome a full-time team, some of the most hardcore fans expressed reservations about it.

Tom Smith and Josh Knight, two friends from Southampton, were among the estimated 600,000 fans at the NFL's rally on Regent Street. Despite their passion for the NFL, they prefer having just a few games a year in London.

"(It) takes specialness away from the event," said Smith, who wore an Eli Manning jersey while Knight wore a Derek Carr one.

NFL Fans In London

Two days before the rally, government workers, A.J., Dave and Al, stood near the bar at The Red Lion. A.J. has attended a few games of the International Series in person.

"There's always a good atmosphere," he said.

Dave said he doesn't the like "the stop-and-start" aspect before joking he enjoyed the cheerleaders, which rugby and soccer lack. His co-worker, A.J., started following the Jets because that was the team his Madden NFL video game randomly selected for him 12 years ago. Al watches live NFL games each Sunday from 6 p.m. to midnight on Sky Sports.

According to the NFL, 14 million people in the U.K. watched NFL programming during the 2015 season.

"Whenever it comes to Super Bowl time, my Facebook feed is dominated," said Lindsay Davis, who works in the gift shop of the British Parliament and whose father and brother were slated to attend the Colts-Jaguars game.

At the Regent Street rally the day before that game, Steve Brown, 28, and his girlfriend, Georgie Collett, 25, took in the scene. He wore a LaDainian Tomlinson jersey while she wore a Ben Roethlisberger one.

Every Sunday they watch the games with six to 10 of their friends at one of their houses while enjoying pizza, chicken or nachos -- and tea.

***

London, a city of more than eight million people, is a desirable international destination for either a full-time NFL team or to host eight-plus games because of its large stadiums, strong economy, manageable logistics, English-speaking residents and passionate fanbase.

Raiders Fan In London

"You have a lot of sports fans who are multi-sport fans," Waller said, "so fans are open to following many sports."

An obvious choice for international expansion would have been Canada, where the MLB and NBA already have teams. But the Canadian Football League is already established there, and -- while no CFL legislation prevents the NFL from establishing a base there -- the NFL is reluctant to move a team to Canada.

Placing a team in two of the prominent Canadian locations, Toronto and Vancouver, could hurt the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, respectively. And the NFL also wants the CFL to succeed because it helps grow the game north of the border.

"We benefit from strong football markets," Waller said. "It will create fans who will also be interested in the NFL."

Having a full-time team in London, though, poses several logistical challenges. In just one example, before the International Series, NFL teams typically send over shipments of supplies by boat in August to save money and space on the team plane. In preparation for their 2014 game against the Dolphins in London, the Raiders shipped 10 cases of 8.5 x 11-inch computer paper for play sheets (U.K. standard paper is a different size), hundreds of cases of Gatorade (players prefer certain flavors) and 600 outlet plug converters.

To address another a challenge, a London NFL team likely would also maintain a headquarters in the U.S., where they could try out players (injury replacements for example) on short notice and as a base from which front-office staffers could more easily scout college players.

NFL Street Scene In London

London is more than 3,000 miles away from the closest NFL city and five hours ahead of the nearest U.S. time zone. After arriving on a red-eye flight Friday morning for the Sunday afternoon game in Wembley against the Jaguars, Colts offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo said, "I felt like death."

To help with the schedule, a London team could host chunks of consecutive games at home and on the road. But hosting a playoff game remains problematic because it would put the road team at a huge disadvantage due to that distance and time change.

Perhaps the biggest issue would be the difference in federal taxes. The highest tax bracket in the United States pays about 40 percent in federal taxes; English citizens pay 45 percent.

Regardless, the NFL remains bullish about its London prospects.

"We will have a fanbase vibrant enough, big enough and that cares enough," Waller said. "The next four or five years, the market will be ready if our ownership wants to make that choice."

Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.