Bagshot, England — Lions president Tom Lewand indicated Wednesday he thinks it's only a matter of time before the NFL determines whether or not the league could operate with one of its teams in London.
Speculation about the possibility of a London team reached new heights this year with the NFL having three games at Wembley Stadium in one season for the first time. The league began its international series in the English capital in 2007, and Wembley hosted one regular-season game each year through 2012, then two in 2013.
According to a report by the London Evening Standard on Wednesday, Chancellor George Osborne has met with league officials and pledged the support of the English government to help a team play at Wembley full time. Exactly how that would happen remains a question — for more than logistical reasons — because the league would have to either expand or relocate a current franchise.
The Lions will play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in the second of the three games. At the team's satellite headquarters at the Pennyhill Park Hotel on Wednesday, Lewand explained the league's interest in expanding internationally.
"I don't think you foreclose any opportunity to make yourselves better whether that's as an individual, as a team or as a league, and clearly there are some tremendous sports fans in the U.K.," he said. "We've seen the growth of our sport and the popularity amongst those great fans over the last few years. How much we can continue to grow that is a real opportunity in front of us."
Lewand said the possibility of having a London team would present plenty of challenges, but he thinks the league could overcome the logistical issues with more research, if it so chose. The Lions had to begin preparing for this week's trip months ago with vice president of football operations Cedric Saunders as the point person.
Even though soccer, rugby and cricket have a stronghold in the United Kingdom, there is a growing fan base for American football. Tickets for the Lions' game against the Falcons sold out in two weeks, and the Sept. 28 game at Wembley between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders had an attendance of 83,436.
"The fact that we've been able to establish a foothold on that competitive landscape is pretty significant," Lewand said.
Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said the addition of a London team would be "interesting," but he suggested the franchise could have a satellite facility on the east coast to help alleviate some travel concerns.
For the Lions' current trip, Lewand said there are both costs and benefits, but the Lions have mostly seen the costs so far. Still, Sunday's game could create more Lions fans, which could pay dividends long term. Among the initial positives for the Lions is having a game on a neutral site instead of playing in Atlanta.
"There are some immediate benefits to both the league and the club, but there's also an opportunity for us as a league and as an organization to continue to expand our brand and to develop new fans," he said. "The lion is a popular animal in England for a lot of different reasons, and we hope to be one of those here shortly."
Lewand said he didn't know an exact timeline for when the NFL could make a decision on having a team in London, but based on the increased resources dedicated to the international series, it might not be that long.
"It's hard to pinpoint a timeline, but knowing the fact that there's a lot of effort and energy being put into it gives me sense that there will be some finality to it one way or the other in the coming years," he said.