A European Vacation, and No More

Branching out in London long-term? Before the NFL gets ahead of itself, it should seriously reconsider the reasoning, benefits and risks of planting a franchise across the Atlantic

nfl-london
The NFL is invading London this week for the seventh season in a row, this year expanding to two games. (Matt Dunham/AP)

We live to get ahead of ourselves these days, rarely willing to put in the time and wait for anything to come to its own natural conclusion. At some point, fast forward became our national default setting, and cutting to the chase was raised to the level of art form. We’re all in a hurry, all the time.

But here’s an idea that needs to be slow-walked: The NFL in London, full time.

It’s London week again in the still-new NFL season, with the winless Vikings and Steelers set to collide Sunday at Wembley Stadium, and that means abundant talk about the league’s plans to eventually cross the pond and permanently plant its flag in the old continent. We’ll even get a double dose of the chatter this year, because for the first time in the seven-year-old London series, there will be two NFL regular-season games played there, with the 49ers and Jaguars set for Week 8.

Two games, and two sellouts in less than two weeks of ticket sales means American football has never been hotter in London. That’s all well and good. Hip, hip, hooray for the NFL, I say. There’s obviously an appetite for the game that continues to build across the Atlantic.

But that’s as far as I’m willing to go on the NFL’s world domination front, and the league shouldn’t be getting way down the road on the end games either. I suppose there are plenty of pounds to be made from the NFL exporting itself to London on a full-time basis, and that’s all the (dollars and) sense it has to make for some in the league, because cash grabs never go out of style.

But call me a skeptic when it comes to the far-fetched notion of the NFL ever being successful full-time in a market five hours and many time zones removed from the East Coast of the United States, and two well-attended regular-season games doesn’t sway me into the ‘it’s inevitable’ camp.

More London
On Thursday, Andrew Brandt will reflect on his time as the GM of the now-defunct NFL Europa's Barcelona Dragons and the business and logistical implications of establishing a team overseas full-time.
This week the NFL’s managing director of operations in the United Kingdom, Alistair Kirkwood, suggested it would require a “tripling’’ of the current football fan base in order to support a team full-time in London. If I do my math correctly, that means the NFL today is only one-third of the way toward becoming as popular as it needs to be to make a run at this London enterprise, and even then that’s only a projection based on what? Past history? Negatory. The only history the league really has to go on in its European experience is the long-gone NFL Europe (né World League), the offseason developmental league that was shuttered for good in 2007 because NFL owners got tired of funding a money-losing proposition. (Besides, they already had the NFL Network serving that purpose).

If you have to triple your fan base, and the London game series is already seven years old, the reality is the NFL is not very close to opening up shop in the UK, even if 80,000-plus hardy souls have routinely shown up in sometimes dreadful October weather to watch the league’s annual game at Wembley.

At one, two or even three games a year (which is being planned for, perhaps as early as 2014), it’s still a novelty event in London, and the league would be wise to continue a testing-the-waters-as-you-go approach. Don’t get in too deep, too fast, and don’t set the bar of expectations too high, because, well, you’re the great and powerful NFL and you believe you can do anything you set your mind to. Make good and sure that London isn’t something the league’s interested in solely for two reasons:  money, and that the NFL being in London sounds like the next big frontier that’s supposed to be tackled.

One question I’ve never heard definitively answered is this: If the NFL is dead-set on going international on a full-time basis at some point relatively soon, why does it have to be a home team for London, where the time difference and travel implications pose serious logistical problems? Playing Monday, Thursday or Sunday night primetime games in London would seem out of the question (1 a.m. kickoffs in the Eastern time zone?), and ensuring a bye week for the opponent following the trip to Europe would be challenging throughout the course of the entire 17-week regular season. To say the least of eight state-side road games for the London club. How exactly would that work?

Maybe, just maybe, the idea of a team in London serves the very useful purpose of making sure Los Angeles cuts the NFL its best possible stadium/franchise rights deal in the long-running soap opera that is L.A.’s bid to relocate a team and return to the league.

Why is the NFL not more interested in football-rabid Mexico City, where the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers drew a then-record 103,000-plus in October 2005, or Toronto, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America and an area with a long history of supporting professional football? Mexico City is seen as a built-in sellout every week, if the NFL would ever look its way. Could it be that the London market is head and shoulders more financially lucrative, and it’s a nod toward struggling Buffalo and its territorial rights to stay out of Ontario, which the Bills consider their backyard? This is the NFL, so generally if you follow the money you’re on the right track.

The cynic in me also surmises that the league already knows very well that the logistical issues of placing a full-time team in London can probably never be overcome, or that there are North American markets more deserving and with a better shot at success. Perhaps the NFL’s realistic hope is to get one or two teams to play half their home games at Wembley, and that would be enough of a stake in the ground to claim that Europe was conquered and that football without borders was now accomplished.

london-big-ben-360
Big Ben meets Big Ben. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Or maybe, just maybe, the idea of a team in London serves the very useful purpose of making sure Los Angeles cuts the NFL its best possible stadium/franchise rights deal in the long-running soap opera that is L.A.’s bid to relocate a team and return to the league for the first time since the Rams and Raiders left after the 1994 season. Oh, the irony. London used as a stalking horse to leverage Los Angeles, the way L.A. has historically been used to leverage current NFL cities that were hesitant to build the new stadiums sought by the league. Something tells me I’m not the first one to recognize the intra-continental benefits of keeping the NFL’s London premise alive and well.

For now, while London may be calling (sorry), the league should play it very casual and be slow to pick up the phone. Keep the NFL’s London efforts to two or even three games a year, and see how this new four-year commitment by Jacksonville to play one home game a year at Wembley pans out. Don’t hit fast-forward, and don’t get way ahead of the story just because instant gratification says we all need to know right now.

Or the NFL could go a different route. It could save itself all the time and energy spent on London and just give the UK the ultimate test that would gauge its long-term viability and interest in the game. Let London host the Pro Bowl for three or four years. If the football fans of Europe can stomach watching that exercise in pantomime, they can watch anything put forth under the NFL banner and probably deserve a reward of some kind.

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35 comments
pandagork
pandagork

My idea? Expand the season to 17 games, with two bye weeks, cut pre-season to 2 weeks. Every team then gets thrown into a hat, maybe split it between AFC and NFC who are then drawn against each other, then those games serve as international games. It ticks every box: no team loses a home game, every team goes abroad for one game, an extra bye week keeps the players fit, more money (hell, the league can equally split the gate money from these neutral field between the teams playing), you can build the fan bases in different country. Hell, even let cities bid for one or two games, and if they get to host two, they can't host another the next season to see if people are still keen down the line. The possibilities are endless

Andrewlawson92
Andrewlawson92

There is no way this team would be sustained, even if they dis work around all the travelling/time zone issues. Its possible if they did make the move it would last a couple of seasons, but without a competitive team attendance will tank, the team wont be able to compete simply because it will be too hard to attract free agents or sign draft picks long term without hold outs. potentially giving the London franchise extra cap space would solve this, but then every other franchise will want the same treatment.


RickDziekan
RickDziekan

Why not instead have each team play 1 game in one of two "guest host" locations, London & LA. Each city gets 8 home games, same as every other NFL team, they just don't have a regular team. If the city shows enough support, the league could expand there and then name another city to be the ":guest host" city. It could be done on a rotating basis so the same teams don't travel to London every year and no team loses a home game 2 years in a row. This makes too much sense. 

Dunedin51
Dunedin51

A game once or twice a year, is ok but a European franchise will not succeed, fans who turn up at Wembley are not just following the participating teams you will see all the NFL colours at the game. A new team would have overcome these allegiances in my case nearly 30 years following Washington, it may get full houses initially but by the end of the season dwindling attendances will certainly happen with a losing team. Something that has not  been mentioned which division would they be in, would the other teams want to travel so far once a year on a regular basis. The game is better supported on a domestic level in Germany than in the UK, as well as more stadia suitable for the NFL so I would say if they supported development of the European game the base would be better there

TomCollins1
TomCollins1

I've been to most of the Wembley games, and I'm pretty sure there isn't enough interest to sustain a team long term. The first season may see a sell-out for every game, but it'd need a big financial commitment from fans around the country to attend eight games in the capital.

That said, the international series has been a great success in my opinion. I'd like to see games being taken around Great Britain, Ireland and continental Europe. It'd spice things up a bit and help broaden the fan market quicker.

Virginian12
Virginian12

I live 10 miles from Wembley and have gone to most of the games here. I totally agree that it would not work financially because there is interest in American Football only as a novelty item.

But the author is wrong about the time difference, so in the USA subtract the 5 hour difference not add it. An 8 pm kickoff here (in the UK) is a 3pm kickoff in Virginia.

Jon-paulJones
Jon-paulJones

In my opinion the markets in the UK and Europe attend the international series because they want to see American football......Not an English/German or whatever franchise joining the league.

I'm quite happy watching regular season games in London with different teams each year and i think we'd sell out 4 or 5 games a year never mind 2.....but i don't think we need our own franchise.

Syd
Syd

For a few people calling out Peter, this article was written by Don Banks.

Howard H
Howard H

As a huge British NFL fan i would agree with a lot of this article. I've been to every game at wembley so far and if you attend you realise there are people there from Scotland, Liverpool, Manchester, Wales, Germany, Ireland.... the point is these people are happy to pay the cost for travel and hotels for one, maybe two games a year but to spend upward of $400 8 times a year is not going to happen, if Goodell thinks all these fans are coming from London he's very much mistaken. the other issue is that im a dolphins fan, you can build a stadium in my city and bring a team over but i will still be a dolphins fan. That's a big difference between American and British sports, we don't have franchises moving from city to city and we will not change allegiances just because a team moves closer.

BillyHicks
BillyHicks

Every sport wants to be international, and I feel football has the chance to do that, but they have to work carefully and intelligently. I know tomherman2000 lived in London and knows everything will work out, but just on the chance he's wrong, I think that this guy is right. There are other closer international markets that would make more sense logistically and probably other markets that would be hotter for football and wouldn't come with the headaches that a team in London would. If we really want to make an international name for the NFL, how about we try something like having an international game a week in all the markets that are interested in bringing the NFL to their area and we play 1 game a week with a team that has a bye week the following week in different places? Like one week we're in Mexico, next in Canada, next in London, next in Germany, ect. That way we can measure which places are the best for logistics, marketing, support, ect. In fact, we could probably play the preseason games internationally and give them 4 games a year that way and see what happens. I've seen this in other sports. NASCAR tends to measure the fan support of a new race track by how well they sell out the lower tier series races before they give it a Cup date, why not do that with the NFL and preseason games?

skanee00
skanee00

Now that American football has gone international (IFAF) who is now really in charge of "American" football?

tomherman2000
tomherman2000

Well Peter, if there weren't dreamers looking to the future where then, would we be? It would be great to have a team in London. As an American who lived there and went to the games, I can assure you it is workable and that you are mistaken in your cynicism.

GregRubin
GregRubin

Another issue with a London based team would be salary cap. Due to the difference in tax laws, a player in England would make significantly less in post tax dollars than one in the US. So there would be a huge incentive for the players to remain on US based teams. So either the London team would have to have a different salary cap, or they would be perennially underbid by oer teams for top tallent. It's hard to say exacally how much this would advantage US teams, but the US has a top marginal tax rate of 39.6%, while Britton has a top rate of 50%. Where these top rates go into effect are different, but it restarts no later that $200,000. so just on the 1M of a 1.2M contract playing in Briton would cost you a player an additional $104,000 in taxes. Which is a huge difference.

casserati
casserati

A major stumbling block to any expansion to London is that European law, and by extension English Law, would not allow restrictive employment practices such as the restriction on players entering the league in the first 3 years after graduating from High School.

Alan Milnes
Alan Milnes

The Pro Bowl seriously??  We know our football here hence the need to give us real games not the tripe that was the World League etc. We're far too knowledgeable to be palmed off with another exhibition game played at a quarter pace.

IdDoHannahStorm
IdDoHannahStorm

Translating the reception given an annual event  to a full season of eight games is a reach.  People like the Olympics, but if the games were held three times a year, every year, interest would fade quickly.  Are there enough fans in London to sell out Wembly?  The logistics are daunting, imagine the west divisions having to play the London Broils.  Something not mentioned, what do you do in the area of compensation?  English taxation is much different than that in the US, not to mention currency exchange. 

3M_TA3
3M_TA3

They're after a new market so much that the home team's market suffers. Local mom and pop businesses missing out on fans. In a way, once again billionaires are shipping jobs overseas.

emessrie
emessrie

That's not how time zones work.  A night game in London would be a 3pm or so kickoff here on the East Coast.  London is ahead of us, not behind us.

mskoglund
mskoglund

If the NFL is bent on cultivating an international market, why not Mexico City?  They drew over 100,000 for the 1 regular season game played there; it's in the US Central Time Zone; it's within reasonable flight distance of most US franchises; and there are about as many cable and satellite subscribers in Mexico as in any single US-based NFL team's market. 

LazyBones
LazyBones

@Dunedin51 "fans who turn up at Wembley are not just following the participating teams you will see all the NFL colours at the game." Do you think that might be because they don't have a team to call their own? Would you really expect to see 90,000 Vikes jerseys in London? 

ChuckSkluzacek
ChuckSkluzacek

@Virginian12 yeah, but the average Monday night game gets off at 8pm Eastern Standard Time (New York) so in order to support the majority of the leagues fan base they would have to play the game at 1AM in London.  I don't think it would be possible.

Wieters
Wieters

@Jon-paulJones Agreed. I went to the International Champions Cup this year to see Real Madrid play Chelsea, and Juventus play Inter Milan. That said, I have never been to an MLS game. 

tomherman2000
tomherman2000

They can make adjustments to level the playing field. Not terribly complicated.

tomherman2000
tomherman2000

Peter King has temporarily lost his mind. Thankfully, there will be more and more games in London and hopefully a team someday soon.

tomherman2000
tomherman2000

You're wrong. The games would all sell out. I lived there and I know. It is already embraced. What good is being cynical?

ChuckSkluzacek
ChuckSkluzacek

@emessrie yeah, but they would still want to air it at normal primetime in the united states. (where a majority of the NFL's fanbase is)  in order to do that they would have to have the game at 1 AM in London.

ChuckSkluzacek
ChuckSkluzacek

@tomherman2000 I am guessing they would be some sort of exception due to the team still being part of an American organization.  Sports teams historically have been allowed to make their own rules in some regards.

IdDoHannahStorm
IdDoHannahStorm

@tomherman2000 Wow Tom, I didn't realize that Jesus had a little brother, and such a know-it-all to boot.  Did the London Monarchs sell out?  If American football was "already embraced"  why did they become the Berlin Thunder?  I don't believe you lived in England.  I don't believe you have been out of your parent's basement in three months.

WilHolland
WilHolland

@tomherman2000

I'm also European (Netherlands) and I talked to multiply people...doesn't think it works like that. 

Because everybody who comes from the main land just can't afford to travel 8 times a year to the UK (London) for a NFL game. 

If it would work...then 65%-75% of the people in the stadium probally should be people from the UK, because they can show up every week. The other 25% - 30% could come from the rest of Europe, but you need to have a fanbase who shows up every week. Does need to be ''locals''.

I see it like this: there are NFL fans spread around Europe. I think most of them live in UK and Germany. The German fans spend serious coin to attend a game, flight ticket + NFL ticket + hotel. But there is no way on earth that same German fan is going to spend that money 8 times a season. 

There are only 2 games so the supply is low and demand maby high. By having 8 games (supply goes up) the demand doesn't increase. It will still be the same group of fans. Every European outside UK can't come 8 times, so that group will spread over the season. Result: the stadium won't will sell out unless the team has a very big local fan base. 

BillyHicks
BillyHicks

@tomherman2000 Why aren't you working  for the NFL? Hey everyone, no need to discuss it any further, Tom here lived in Europe! Something I'm sure no one has EVER seen before! And he knows they'll fix everything with their magic wand. Tax issues? It'lll go away magically. Logistics of travel? They'll handle it. Laws that hinder the practices the NFL deals in? It'll be taken care of. Tom said so, that should be good enough for us all! Because he lived there once.

BobMays820
BobMays820

@ChuckSkluzacek @emessrie Why would they put it on primetime?  This Sunday's is not - it's at 1:00 PM Eastern - just as if the game was being played on a typical Sunday in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis.

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