Better Than London
When the Lions-Falcons game kicks off at London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday, NFL fans in America will be able to forgo the usual pregame shows and watch actual football starting at 9:30 a.m. EDT. That schedule, about 14 hours of game coverage on TV, represents exactly what London means to the league: a growing business opportunity.
But how much should the NFL seek to expand?
It’s a key question that will have to be answered over the next several years. So far, the league has increased its presence in the U.K. smartly and steadily, adding games, using the time difference to create new viewing windows in America, and defying the soccer-dominated culture by closing downtown’s Regent Street to hold festivities that draw more than a half-million fans wearing gear of all 32 teams.
But what is the endgame for the NFL in London? The two most-talked about scenarios are permanently moving a current franchise across the Atlantic, or expanding the International Series to as many as eight games, in essence giving London a full home schedule with different teams each week. But neither is a perfect solution.
The regular season should be a 19-week, 17-game schedule, with each team having eight home games, eight away games, two bye weeks and one neutral-site game.
Owners would have to be convinced that putting a team in London would be fair competitively, particularly for teams in the same division. The London team’s schedule would likely be blocked off in two- or three-game home and away chunks, but opponents traveling across the pond would be making at least a five-hour time-zone adjustment, exaggerating the home-field advantage. And the NFL doesn’t yet have answers to all the logistical questions, such as: Since teams begin preparing for London trips in February, and since they send their supplies over on a boat in August, how would a playoff team get everything there with less than a week’s notice?
The “variety pack” approach has one major limitation: it would require eight teams each season, one-quarter of the league, to give up a home game. Eight years into the International Series, the NFL is preparing for the well of volunteers to dry up. Owners approved new rules at the recent league meetings to secure more London “home” teams, as first reported by the Sports Business Journal. Super Bowl host teams, starting with the next bid, will give up one home game to London over a five-year period, and any future teams using a temporary stadium (the Vikings are exempt) will play one game per season in London. Some teams’ stadium leases, however, may not allow them to give up a home game (nearly a dozen teams fall under this category, according to one estimate from an NFL U.K. executive). Most of all, season-ticket holders in America aren’t thrilled with the idea of getting only seven home games.
I was in London in late September for the Raiders-Dolphins game and wrote a story that asked: Why London? And Can It Work? In the comments section, a reader using the handle “headblade” offered an out-of-the-box idea that I love. The regular season should be a 19-week, 17-game schedule, with each team having eight home games, eight away games, two bye weeks and one neutral-site game. The neutral-site games would be like the preseason American Bowls the NFL held around the world from 1986 to 2005—in London, Dublin, Canada, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Japan and Australia—except these would be bona fide regular-season products. The league could even hold games in U.S. states that don’t have a franchise, such as Alabama or Hawaii. Even a certain metropolis in Southern California could host an NFL game.
It sounds different, it sounds farfetched, but it’s actually not. Not to the NFL. I spoke to people in the league office this week and floated the idea. Definitely something to be studied, I was told. Like all major corporations, the NFL models and projects every potential way to grow its business. There are a few major hurdles, of course: The schedule would have to be significantly reorganized, and both owners and players would have to agree to the terms—and we all know the players have adamantly opposed expanding the regular season beyond 16 games.
In this proposed scenario, however, players would get a second bye week to help their bodies recover in exchange for a 17th game. And it’s hard to imagine owners not agreeing to fewer preseason games as a compromise, especially now that intersquad scrimmages are growing in popularity as a way for coaches and front offices to evaluate personnel. Another possible incentive? Use the second bye week to take away the short Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround that players hate. The NFL could slot neutral-site games on Thursday nights, a nice showcase, with teams getting a bye week on the front end, and a 10-day buffer on the back end to account for jet lag. These games could start a few weeks into the season, so that no team gets a Week 1 or 2 bye. To make the math work, games could be doubled up some weeks—a Thursday night doubleheader, or games on Wednesdays or in non-traditional viewing windows, according to time-zone differences.
The neutral-site idea would allow the NFL to be relevant in multiple international markets—London, Ireland, Germany, Mexico City, China or Brazil—while bringing pro football to new places within the U.S.
Make no mistake, the NFL wants a London-based team. They are testing, planning and marketing to see if it can work. Mark Waller, the executive vice president in charge of the NFL’s international initiatives, has repeatedly said that he believes it will happen in seven to eight years. The league has invested in making Wembley Stadium an NFL-ready venue, and American football has gained a foothold in the U.K. since the start of the International Series in 2007. But the logistics may be too complicated, and the risks too great, to guarantee long-term success. Alan O’Donohoe, a 48-year-old NFL fan from Ashbourne, Ireland, told me at Wembley Stadium last month, “They’d only move a weak franchise anyway.” And Andrew Kinsman, a 49-year-old from just outside London, added, “I’d rather have some games in London than a franchise that might not work out.”
Business-minded executives and team owners want to raise the ceiling for the NFL’s growth, and expanding the game beyond America’s borders makes sense. “The world’s changing, and it’s global,” Waller said last month, “so if we want to continue to be the No. 1 sport in America, we are probably going to have to be more relevant globally.” The neutral-site idea would allow the NFL to be relevant in multiple international markets—London, Ireland, Germany, Mexico City, China or Brazil—while bringing pro football to new places within the U.S. Is there any reason to think Memorial Stadium, the home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, wouldn’t sell out for an NFL game?
The London games routinely sell out Wembley Stadium. A big reason why? Each feels like a Super Bowl, an event, a happening. The neutral-site idea would have its own logistical challenges, but it would be fun for fans, fairer for teams and certainly a boon for business. So, yes: Definitely something to be studied.