COVER STORY | FOOTBALL
Home and away Shahid Khan is the NFL’s first foreign-born owner and the first to fully embrace the league’s international strategy for growth. As the Jacksonville Jaguars prepare for the first of four trips to London over the coming four years, Khan insists he can achieve what many believe to be the impossible: build an international fanbase and attract a new wave of local support in and around Jacksonville. By David Cushnan. Photographs by Graham Fudger.
he National Football League (NFL) has been making an annual autumnal transatlantic trip to London to play a single regular season game since 2007 and if this year’s match-up did not result in the thrilling contest the league is always hoping for on such occasions – New England Patriots easily defeated a limp St Louis Rams on a typically grey late-October afternoon at Wembley Stadium – it did perhaps mark the end of the first chapter in the NFL’s gradual international expansion. Next year comes the next step. There will be two regular season Wembley outings instead of one, with the Minnesota Vikings playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on 29th September in an additional game announced in mid-October, and the Jacksonville Jaguars beginning what might best be termed an annual temporary residency in the British capital, starting with a game against the San Francisco 49ers on 27th October 2013. For while some teams, the Patriots amongst them, have played in London more than once in the past six seasons, the Jaguars have committed to playing a regular season game in the UK for each of the next four years, at a stroke taking on the bulk of an international expansion strategy that the league has been hinting at and taking baby steps towards for some time. While Wembley’s 90,000 seats have been filled each time the NFL has come to town over the past six years, mainstream appeal outside the United States has been harder to come by. Despite the best efforts of the NFL’s proactive UK division, based in London, to stir up interest, with appearances in the lead-up to each London game by players past and present
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“I have two kids; this will be a family business and it will pass on to them and hopefully be a multi-generational business for years to come.” and a now-annual fan festival in Trafalgar Square on the eve of games, the oncea-year novelty has clearly begun to wear off. UK-based NFL devotees have been pressing for more; at the same time, casual UK sports fans – in other words, those the NFL hopes to attract in the longer term – clearly require more if they are to be truly snared by the league. The NFL is banking on the Jaguars, a small-market team but one under the stewardship of a forward-thinking new owner, becoming the league’s de facto international franchise until at least 2016. Shahid Khan is evidently up for the challenge. “I think it’s significant for the league and significant for the Jacksonville Jaguars,” the 61-year-old says. “When I was introduced as the owner I articulated that we needed to be more international and develop a fanbase outside Jacksonville and it’s not only to get more fans but to be part of the NFL international experience, spreading the game overseas and, with that, end up obviously hoping to be accepted as London’s team and develop fans there.” Khan is just completing his first year as owner of the Jaguars, the only major league franchise based in a north-eastern Florida city with some 850,000 residents and bold plans for growth. He acquired the team from founder Wayne Weaver for US$760 million late last year – the transaction and ratification of the deal
went through in January – and joined a select group of 32 who own teams in the United States’ richest, most popular professional league. Moreover, he immediately became one of the more fascinating members of the gang, as a recent Forbes cover story and a profile on CBS’s 60 Minutes news programme testify. Khan has become a national story – and, as a result, so too have the Jaguars. An auto parts trader who bought FlexN-Gate in 1980 and has since built it into a company that boasts annual sales of some US$3 billion, Khan is the NFL’s first foreign-born owner. Although educated at the University of Illinois, Khan was born in the Pakistani city of Lahore and only moved to the USA when he was 16. Initially an employee at Flex-N-Gate while still a student, he began his own truck parts business, Bumper Works, in 1978 before returning to Flex-N-Gate to buy the company. Lucrative contracts with Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Toyota followed. Flex-N-Gate now has many thousands of employees and nearly 50 manufacturing plants dotted across the US, Argentina, Canada, Mexico and Spain, making Khan a fortune in the process. So why exactly did this Pakistan-born, Illinois-educated, auto parts trading, impressively moustachioed, highly successful, apparent personification of the ‘American Dream’ need the hassle and sheer stress of owning an NFL team? The