Sunday marks the first of two games of the 2013 NFL International Series as the Minnesota Vikings “host” the Pittsburgh Steelers at Wembley Stadium in London (the Jacksonville Jaguars meet the San Francisco 49ers next month). With this year’s doubling of NFL inventory previously available to the English market, one can surmise that two games eventually will become three, three will become four, four will become six … until we have an NFL team stationed in London.
Although many dismiss the notion of an overseas NFL franchise, I certainly do not. Commissioner Roger Goodell is intent on growing the game beyond our domestic borders, starting in London. More importantly, NFL owners—in case you haven’t been paying attention—care deeply about creating and capitalizing upon every possible revenue stream. Playing a game or two abroad is not maximization of that income. Owners start to see dollar signs from entry into the European market and beyond.
Yes, there will be logistical, operational and competitive challenges with a London team, but we are talking about a league approaching $10 billion in gross revenue. Simply, these issues can be worked out. My perspective is one of experience: I served as the first general manager of the Barcelona Dragons in the NFL-backed World League. In my opinion, solving the logistics of a potential NFL team in London would be a cakewalk compared to the NFL’s maiden voyage in Europe more than 20 years ago.
‘Do you speak Barcelonan?’
In 1991, I was a few years into a career as an agent when I was presented an interesting opportunity. I was negotiating a contract for client Chris Doleman with Vikings general manager/part-owner, Mike Lynn.
When we finished negotiating Doleman’s contract, Lynn lit up a cigarette (one of a dozen he smoked in our two-hour meeting), eyed me closely and asked: “Do you speak Barcelonan?”
I thought this was an interesting question. “Does that mean Spanish?”
“Yeah, Spanish.” (It turned out he was wrong; Catalan is spoken in Barcelona.)
“Yes, I speak Spanish.” I took it in high school; I could fake my way through.
“How would you like to be the general manager of the Barcelona Dragons?”
“We’re starting a league overseas. We’re going to spread football around the globe. It’s going be bigger than the NFL!”
I enjoyed the agent business (I would later return to it) but could not pass up the opportunity at a very young age to run a professional football team, albeit one in a minor league in another country. Three months before opening day on ABC television and with no coaches or players, I became general manager of the Barcelona Dragons.
Goalposts in the corners
After being turned down by some top NFL assistant coaches, such as Tony Dungy, who was intrigued but not by moving to Spain, I hired former Boston College coach Jack Bicknell. Within a week, we drafted 80 players, had training camp in Florida, cut 40 players (some with Spanish heritage) and boarded a plane to Spain. Instant football team!
When we arrived in Spain, our marketing director proudly announced: “Andrew, for our opening game we have sold 173 tickets!”
“How many does the stadium hold?”
“That’s not good.”
“Don’t worry. In Spain, everyone walks up.”
Thankfully, the night before our game, we were allowed to have the team run around at halftime of an FC Barcelona game with the public address announcer promoting our game the next night (or at least I think that’s what he said). Those five minutes in front of 100,000 people, combined with our handing out tickets to whomever we met, resulted in 18,000 fans for our opening game, clearing the 15,000 number we had targeted. On to the game.
Our first touchdown was a seam pattern to the tight end, who broke three tackles en route to an exciting 70-yard touchdown. I jumped for joy, but the stadium only had a murmur of muted golf applause. Hmmm. Then our kicker came on and kicked the extra point and … the crowd went nuts!
American football, for the fans that came, was a diversion, a curiosity far different than their passion for soccer. They cheered at all the wrong times, did “the wave” and sang “Ole” throughout the game. They just wanted to have some fun. So we made it a party.
We changed our entire marketing approach from selling American football to selling an American event. We sold hot dogs and hamburgers; we brought over marching bands and Frisbee dogs; we blasted American rap music at every stoppage of play. I hired two NFL cheerleaders to teach the women of Barcelona to dance as they did, creating “Las Chicas Del Dragons.” They became more popular than the team and were booked throughout Spain.
Logistically, there were some obstacles. When the goalposts were first installed at the stadium, they were mounted in the corners of the end zones. The laundry service ruined our uniforms countless times. Getting equipment out of customs always required some negotiating and a greased palm or two.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles were food and lodging. We could never get enough food. The hotel staff constantly complained, They eat so much; they are too big! We put night tables with a pillow on top at the end of each bed so players’ legs wouldn’t flop over. And dealing with the wives and girlfriends visiting players while navigating the new Spanish girlfriends (and one wife) was a full-time job in itself.
To borrow a U.S. Navy tagline, the Barcelona Dragons experience was not just a job, it was an adventure. However, Barcelona was then and London is now.
London and the logistics
Even back in the World League 22 years ago, the sophistication of American football fans at Wembley Stadium was vastly greater than what we experienced in Barcelona. When we played in the inaugural World Bowl in London (against the London Monarchs), it was very similar to playing in front of an American audience, just with some English flair.
Yes, soccer will always be the bellwether sport for London and all of Europe, but there is a recognized market for American football. The NFL is increasing its output there to set a floor for further offerings in the future.
On the team level, when the St. Louis Rams had to back out of previously scheduled London games due to their own stadium issues, Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn pounced, strategically positioning his franchise as the closest thing there is to a “home team” in London. Khan, also the new owner of English Premier League team Fulham, represents an aggressive player for international opportunities in the NFL ownership circle.
I understand and hear anxieties about travel, pay, competitive balance, etc. Change is scary and logistical concerns are real. However, we are far removed from our days in the World League, where our road trips would take two days.
Flights to London from the East Coast take similar (or less) time as cross-country flights, and all team travel is done on private charters. Bye weeks for teams playing in London can be scheduled for the following week, as they are now. And the London team would likely have two or three-week road trips in the United States, something that happens in the NFL with teams playing consecutive West (or East) Coast games. For instance, the Arizona Cardinals are staying in Florida this week after a Week 3 game in New Orleans and a Week 4 game at Tampa Bay.
As to issues with player compensation and increased costs for housing, travel, etc., this will be part of the collective bargaining process with the NFLPA. Everything is negotiable. Perhaps players will not be required to stay in London beyond the season, with potential for training camp and offseason workouts at a designated facility in the United States. As to equalizing tax and contractual imbalances, that too can be handled in discussions with the union.
To dismiss the idea of an NFL team in London is folly. With NFL owners looking to unlock every untapped income source, an opening into the European market makes obvious sense. The internationalization of the NFL is not going to remain fixed at a couple games per year. It will not happen soon, perhaps not even during the present CBA that runs through 2020, but it will happen eventually. NFL international expansion is not a matter of if, but when.