Publish date:

LONDON CALLING

There's a point to all those NFL games in the U.K. this season. The league wants to expand its empire—and one owner in particular seems keen to launch a reverse British Invasion
Author:

IT'S 8:30 A.M. on a Saturday in London when Shad Khan saunters onto the deck of the Kismet, his superyacht, for a morning yoga session. He looks as if he's just woken up, his hair messy and tussled, his eyes glazed over. Khan had hosted a party at a club the night before that lasted until 1 a.m. "If anybody left sober, hey, it was their bad judgment," he says.

In the 1970s, Khan developed a new bumper that revolutionized the auto industry, and then he bought Flex-N-Gate, an auto-parts manufacturer, and turned it into a billion-dollar business. His net worth is now $7.1 billion, which makes him, according to Forbes, the 72nd-richest American. He used that wealth to buy two professional sports teams—the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC, of the English Championship League. His yacht is docked on the Thames River in Canary Wharf, near the East London financial district, because the Jaguars are in town for their annual London game, the fifth consecutive year they've played here.

The NFL owners' club is dominated by white men; Khan, a Pakistan-born Muslim who immigrated to the United States as a teenager to study engineering at Illinois, was the league's first nonwhite majority owner. Earlier this year Khan won a bid to develop 70 acres of land near the St. John's River, which would essentially move downtown Jacksonville closer to EverBank Field. The project is expected to include hotels and restaurants, office space and stores, apartments and condos. Khan wants the buildings to have "a soul, have character to them," he says. "You see that in Barcelona or in Paris." This is all expected to cost him north of $500 million in private funding, and Khan is expected to foot a good chunk of the bill.

Khan has become one of Jacksonville's most prominent and influential figures. But some people wonder what his long-term intentions are, if maybe he's planning to move the Jaguars to London full-time someday. Given Khan's London ties and considering the size of the Jacksonville market, moving the team to London might make sense.

The thought alone makes Jaguars fans and the entire city of Jacksonville nervous.

KHAN'S INTENTIONS for this day were more or less clear: He'd host a party on his yacht, mingle with business associates and check in on his soccer team. When the party begins, Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville, is in a corner chatting with his wife and holding a Bloody Mary. Curry has heard the rumors that Khan may move the Jaguars to London, but he's not worried. "What he says in public is what he says in private," the mayor says. "He loves the people there. He sees the potential."

Curry points to how Khan has invested money back into EverBank Field. Khan has spent about $175 million renovating the stadium over the last five years, splitting the bill with the city. He's upgraded the club seats, he's added lavish features like pools and cabanas, and he's installed 362-foot-wide video boards. Adjacent to the field, he just added a practice facility and a 5,500-seat amphitheater, modeled after Radio City Music Hall. The team plans to host concerts there.

"Shad has said this is the one great chance that Jacksonville has to change its face," says Paul Harden, Khan's Jacksonville-based lawyer, born and raised in the city. "He doesn't do anything small. He seeks out the greatest architects in the world, the greatest land planners in the world. He looks at a piece of property that's sat there untouched for 50 years and sees a great new city."

Still, it's clear that within the Jaguars' offices, there is a focus on another challenge: turning the Jaguars into an international brand. That was one of the first jobs Khan gave team president Mark Lamping, who has worked as an executive with Anheuser-Busch, was president of the St. Louis Cardinals and oversaw construction of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Before the Jacksonville stadium renovations and the city's downtown development project, Khan raised his hand in 2012 when the NFL was looking for a team willing to play in London on a regular basis. Before the league could decide whether it could move a team here full-time, it needed to see if the London market would throw its support behind one team. It needed a guinea pig.

Khan viewed regular trips to London as a way to generate more money for his small-market franchise. He's been proved correct. The London game now accounts for about 15% of the Jags' annual revenue. But Khan also saw a chance to expand the Jaguars' profile beyond north Florida. He created a London bureau and moved three Jags staffers here full-time to handle local sponsorships and oversee a number of community initiatives. They include a flag-football league for middle schoolers, a nationwide flag-football tournament and a clinic where Jags coaches teach English kids American football. Once a month Lamping will travel to London and check in on the team's local interests in person.

The strategy seems to be working. The NFL's U.K. office reports that the Jaguars are the eighth-most-popular team in London, as of June 2017, as measured by jersey sales, despite their 15--49 record over the last four seasons. There also seems to be the makings of a solid season-ticket base among the locals: 40,000 people bought ticket packages to attend all four games played in London this season.

The next step in the experiment, says Mark Waller, the NFL executive vice president of international operations, is to play eight games in London—simulating a full regular season—and having one team play there twice, in back-to-back weeks. The Jaguars could be that team. "We'd listen if it meant further strengthening the franchise in Jacksonville," Khan says. For now, the Jaguars are committed to playing one game a year here for three more years, through the 2020 season.

By then, the chatter to bring a team to London could really pick up. Waller is targeting 2022 as the window: The NFL CBA will be expiring, the league's TV contracts will be coming up, and the league will have a better understanding of the logistical challenges of having a team in London. "That would appear to be a logical time where all three things come together," Waller says.

IS THERE REALLY a chance that the Jags will move here permanently someday? "I mean, is there a remote chance that I win the lottery?" Khan says. He laughs, as if he's proved his point. It is left unsaid that he is already worth more than a lottery winner.

About a year after volunteering the Jaguars to play a game in London, in 2013, Khan went searching for an English soccer team to buy too. Pairing a British soccer team with the Jaguars would only raise their London profile further.

Fulham's venue, Craven Cottage, is unlike any other in sports. It's the British version of Fenway Park, a bandbox of a stadium squeezed onto a patch of land between Bishop's Park, the Thames and a west London neighborhood. The cottage was originally used as a royal hunting lodge in the late 1700s, and Fulham played its first match on this site in 1896.

Khan bought Fulham in 2013 for an estimated $300 million. He later installed his son, Tony, as director of football operations, and now Shad is working on developing the Cottage in a similar way that he developed EverBank Field. He wants fans to flock to the Cottage even when Fulham is not playing. He views it as another way to generate money to put back into the team. "You've got to have a sustainable model," Khan said on a British sports talk show while he was in London. "Fulham was there way before my time, and it'll be here way after I'm gone. What makes it sustainable shouldn't be someone's bottomless bank account."

Now, in the corner of the yacht party, Lamping is asked whether the Jaguars might move to London someday. He says that the events, sponsorships and initiatives in London are all directed toward earning money to make the team sustainable in Jacksonville.

"Everything we're doing in London is to make us stronger in Jacksonville," he says. It sounds like a stock answer.

"You understand, I have to ask the question," I say.

"And you understand, I have to dodge the question," Lamping says, laughing.

Khan viewed regular trips to London as a way to generate money for his franchise. He's been proved correct.

THE GREAT EXPANSE

If the NFL were to grow, which city—aside from London—should get a team?

MEXICO CITY

The market is massive, and the league is in the second straight year of regular-season games there.

SAN ANTONIO

Texas loves its football, and the city just invested $60 million to upgrade the 64,000-seat Alamodome.

PORTLAND

An oft-discussed locale for a future MLB or NHL team, Portland has a sneaky-big TV market. And the city's beer and food-truck scene would make for great tailgating.

SALT LAKE CITY

It's one of America's fastest-growing cities, college football is huge in Utah, and a team there would fill the NFL's largest regional gap.

TORONTO

The Rogers Centre needs modernizing, but a team would have an entire country's fan base behind it.

GO FIGURE

56

Average number of wins by the Heat, per season, while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were Miami teammates from 2010 to '14. They were reunited when Wade signed a one-year, $2.3 million deal with the Cavs last week.

14

Percent chance the NBA's bottom three teams will each have of winning the draft lottery in 2019. The rule change was made to discourage teams from tanking. (Odds of the worst team's getting the top pick had been 25%.)

55

Percent of Americans supporting legalized sports betting, according to a new Washington Post and UMass-Lowell poll. It marks the first time a poll has found that a national majority supports sports gambling.

GO FIGURE

16

WNBA

A SMASHING FINALS

18

EXTRA MUSTARD

20

FACES IN THE CROWD

21