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
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.
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.
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.