Beyond Vegas: London Is Calling the NFL
PHOENIX — To some in the room, the speed at which everything moved on Monday morning at the NFL’s annual meeting was jarring.
Maybe it was that 18 of the 32 teams were represented on either the stadium or finance committee, so there was little need to belabor the particulars about the Raiders’ proposed move to Las Vegas. Maybe it was this particular relocation had been thoroughly vetted in the fall. Or maybe the owners were just sick of talking about it.
No matter the reason, this is how it went in the room: the Raiders made their presentation, the floor opened for discussion, that discussion was minimal, and owner Mark Davis was given the green light to move his team by a 31-1 vote. It was a relatively painless phase of what’s supposed to be a painful process, and to some it begged an obvious question: Is it becoming too easy for teams to chase the next dollar?
The next obvious question: Where does the next dollar come from?
The answer I got Monday afternoon after asking around at the Arizona Biltmore was just as simple as the morning’s business proceedings. The next frontier isn’t likely to be the vacated markets of Oakland, San Diego or St. Louis. It’s overseas.
“I’m not aware of anyone else who’s interested in leaving their home market at this time, so I’d be surprised if anything popped up in that regard,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt said. “However, as chairman of the international committee, we are discussing what the best way is to continue to grow the business internationally and it’s no secret that a subject that’s been floated is one day having a team that’s playing at least their regular season schedule overseas.
“So that’d be the only thing I’d see in the near future. It’s certainly not imminent.”
Maybe not. But at the very least, London seems to have moved into the on-deck circle.
First, some history. Near the end of the old CBA, as the game’s popularity was exploding and reaching a saturation point, the NFL recognized that it was going to become harder to grow up, so it needed to grow out. That meant adding inventory, which was the talk about 18 regular-season games, expanded playoffs, Thursday night games, a return to Los Angeles, and, perhaps most notably, globalization.
The NFL had launched the International Series in 2007 with a singular focus on building in London, while quietly setting a 15-year goal of becoming the first North American sports league to base a franchise there. One London game for the first six years became two in 2013, and two in 2013 became three in 2014. This year, the NFL will play four games in London (half of a home schedule) for the first time.
Next year, a dual-purpose stadium the NFL invested in at Tottenham will open; it’s the first one being built overseas for both American football and the British kind. After that, the hope is to eventually get to an eight-game series in London, which could either be the precursor to a club landing there or simply the long-term solution.
“First time we went there, I said that in the next decade, I think there should be a team here,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “I still think we should have a team there, and then probably on the continent. I don’t know how it’ll work, we’ll have to work the logistics … How would it work? Who would it be? … But I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five to seven years we have a team there. Maybe sooner.”
The logistics won’t be easy.
The league has looked at adding a second bye week to the schedule to help manage such a massive undertaking, and concepts such as having the London team play in blocks—three games in the U.K., then three stateside—have been discussed. Air travel remains an issue, as does making tricky one-off situations (say, a Seattle vs. London wild-card game) doable. In addition to being based in the U.K., the team would likely have a U.S. training facility as well, maybe in Florida, for extended stays.
There’s also the question of who would go. As Hunt said, there aren’t very many immediate candidates.
“No fan or community is going to suddenly wake up and find out that their team is thinking about moving,” NFL EVP Eric Grubman said. “The precursor is an aging stadium that is not being maintained, a lack of competitiveness in that stadium as an economic engine, and nobody doing anything about it. If those things are present, the clouds are gathering, and usually people aren’t silent about it.
“So if you look around the league, I don’t think all those things are in place in any other market. Could they be in five or 10 years? Yes. But not now, and I see no reason to suggest that’s going to happen.”
Grubman also affirmed Hunt and Kraft in saying that working on the International Series now becomes “the most important thing that people are working on that involves the playing of games.” And again, in five years or so, maybe that means playing eight games with different teams in London. Or maybe it’ll mean a franchise like Buffalo or Jacksonville starting to explore the idea of going there permanently.
Which brings us back to the expedience of Monday morning’s process. Two or three years ago, Las Vegas wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a potential landing spot for whoever would lose out in the race to Los Angeles. But an incredible deal for the Raiders emerged from the ashes of their failed Carson project, one that was so good that only one owner could manage to tell Davis no on Monday.
The bottom line: the next dollar was in the desert, so now the Raiders are there too. And the cold business of that process tells us that whoever comes next may well be looking for a good exchange rate.
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