With great prominence, Tom Brady jerseys promise to dot the stands of Wembley Stadium on Sunday, when the NFL returns to London. Odell Beckham Jr. No. 13s will likely be just as popular on the backs of fans.
This game is between the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars, a matchup that will be streamed globally by Yahoo Sports (9:30 a.m. ET). The NFL’s International Series is 10 years old, and the crowd that comes to games in London (four of them this season) is often general fans of the league, not the specific teams that are playing.
They come to see the sport in person, regardless of who is playing. They show their NFL fandom by wearing whatever jersey they have bought, Brady and Beckham more often than anyone else, but with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers getting plenty of love. It’s somewhat akin to an American kid wearing a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo kit to a soccer game in the States. It makes sense even if it doesn’t.
London doesn’t have a home team and it certainly doesn’t have a home star. It has the Jaguars though, who have tried to create a foothold by making London a second home of sorts. The franchise has played one game annually there since 2013 and is contracted to continue through 2020. Team owner Shad Khan said he hopes to extend that even longer.
Yet the Jags have never had one of their players connect with the English the way a pseudo “home team” star could. That’s mainly because they’ve had almost no one worth cheering for, a collection of mostly dull players on bad teams. Heading into this season, they won a meager 15 games combined since playing in London.
Enter Leonard Fournette.
[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]
Jacksonville’s big rookie running back has the potential to not just transform the franchise (it’s 1-1 this season) but also give the Jaguars the kind of easy-to-root-for-star in their home away from home.
At least that’s the plan.
“Most definitely,” Fournette said. “If I give them a show, I think they are going to want my jersey. I might be the biggest player there.”
Fournette, a 6-foot, 228-pound freight train of a running back, is just two games into his NFL career. He has gained 140 yards rushing (plus 45 more receiving) and scored two touchdowns. His potential is unquestioned. He was a breakout star at LSU, where he averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored 40 touchdowns across three seasons.
The possibilities with Fournette are so great that the Jaguars spent the fourth overall pick on him despite the league generally being repulsed at drafting running backs that high. Coincidentally it was the same spot Dallas took Ezekiel Elliott the year before. While Fournette won’t run behind an offensive line as strong as the Cowboys, the expectations are similar.
These are two old-school franchise running backs.
For marketing purposes, much like Brady (who wins and wins) and Beckham (who catches acrobatic passes with one hand) Fournette’s game is the kind young fans want to emulate.
“I’m a playmaker,” Fournette said. “A north-south runner who can make people miss but also run through people. I can give them a show.”
If he provides NFL fans everywhere that show, particularly Sunday against an excellent Ravens defense, then annual appearances in London (and the community outreach that goes with it) could excite the masses. Certainly in a way that no Jaguars player ever has. For most of the Jaguars’ London experiment, fourth-year quarterback Blake Bortles has been the face of the franchise. He enters this game battling for his job though. And despite going 2-1 in London games, he’s averaged a ho-hum 18-for-33 passing for 226.3 yards. He’s thrown four touchdowns and two picks.
The London connection makes Jacksonville unique. Nearly every NFL player, especially at the skill positions, seeks to maximize their income through marketing and advertising. That isn’t easy in Jacksonville. The Jaguars are a relatively new team, its first season was in 1995. It exists in a small market, just 1.6 million people. And it resides in football-crowded state, battling for fans and attention against not just older NFL franchises in Miami and Tampa that have won Super Bowls, but local college powerhouses Florida State and the University of Florida.
London’s metropolitan area, with a population of 13.6 million (larger than Los Angeles County) offers a chance for the Jags and its stars to overcome some of that.
Fournette is well aware. He is a likeable, relatable personality. He was a fan favorite at LSU. He joked Tuesday about his concerns over the pending 10-hour flight to London (“What do you do on a plane for that long?” he asked) and how he hoped there might be some downtime for some shopping (“Clothing, shoes, things we don’t get here.”)
Mainly he wants to embrace London, this year and every year, as a life opportunity, not merely another game.
“It’s cool, this is a chance to experience new stuff,” Fournette said. “This is my first time going over there.
“I believe I can connect with the fans,” he continued. “Just give me a chance to interact with the people in London and for me to get to know their culture. I think it’s going to be a fun opportunity to get to know how they are.”
Combine that with 100-plus yards rushing and a few touchdowns Sunday (far easier typed than done) and London might finally have a “home” star they can embrace. Then next year, and the next and the next, they can wear his No. 27 to the game.
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