NFL has made no secret of its desire to bring American football to a new international stage. Is it feasible?

January 04, 2016

By Bryan Gardiner, WIRED  

The NFL has made no secret of its desire to bring American football to a new international stage. In fact, after holding regular season games at Wembley Stadium for eight consecutive years—as well as a new deal in place to continue these matches through 2020—you could even argue that a full-time franchise in London seems possible at this point. Possible and probable are very different things, however. Even if you factor in the two additional UK stadiums the league will have at its disposal by 2018, the logistics of permanently moving a team to London remain daunting—to say nothing of installing franchises in other countries. No one knows this better than Mark Waller. As the NFL's executive vice president of International, Waller is the guy behind many of the recent expansion efforts in the UK. The way he sees it, London represents a pivotal step on the way to a truly global NFL—serving both as a proof of concept and a kind of franchise beachhead for further expansion into countries like Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. "We picked the market and I always said let's really focus on proving out this idea and proving it out over time," says Waller, referring to the long term expansion plans. "It's one of those ideas that sounds great, but will the fans come year-in and year-out? Will the excitement stay the same?" So far the answer to those questions seems to be yes, although it's worth noting the league has never played more than three games in London per season (it would likely have been four this year were it not for the Rugby World Cup). While Waller insists the 2022 plan is still on track, he's also the first to admit there are some big logistical problems that the NFL has yet to crack. Whether it's figuring out how to eliminate the bye teams currently get for playing in the UK, finding ways to mitigate the competitive issues involving travel and jet lag, or just making sure that everyone on a team's ever-changing roster has a visa and passport, there are plenty of remaining obstacles that could sink the NFL's international ambitions.

The London Approach

To get sense of the difficulties ahead, it helps to look at the league's current international growth strategy. The first part of this three-step approach, according to Waller, is choosing the right city. That means finding a place that not only has an existing NFL fan base, but one that also has the potential to grow large enough to support a full-time team. Can you grow a fan base like you would grow a business? It's hard to say. But that isn't stopping the NFL from trying. "The UK really has two groups of NFL fans," says Waller, "fans who got to know the game in the '80s, and the fans who've come into the game in the last 10 years or so." Before launching the International Series in 2007, the league looked at both demographics and their potential to grow within the existing competitive sports environment in London. The data seemed promising. "That was the first piece of analysis that led us to believe the idea of playing games [in London] was a viable proposition," Waller says. Next comes infrastructure. If you're wondering—like Nate Silver did in this FiveThirtyEight piece, why the NFL isn't aiming its expansion efforts a little closer to home, like in Mexico for instance, the answer is basically stadiums. By some estimates, Mexico City has an American football fan base three times the size of London's. What it doesn't have are very many modern stadium options. "If you look at how things have evolved in just the last 10 years, the amount of technical information and technology infrastructure required to play the game has grown exponentially," says Waller. "The stadiums in Mexico were essentially, other than the new Monterrey one, built for the World Cup and the Olympics 50 years ago." Until more modern venue options exist, it doesn't matter how massive the fan base is, says Waller. From the NFL's perspective, the issue of fans and modern stadium access in London are less problematic. But that still leaves the third, and arguably most difficult step in the internationalizing process: figuring out how to make everything work logistically. "So far, I think [the NFL is] reaping the low-hanging benefits in London without having to deal with the full-on logistical nightmare involved in having a team over there," says Matt Bowers, a professor of sports management at the University of Texas at Austin. Bowers taught a course where his students came up with an NFL Expansion Bid of their own as a final project, and he says he's seen pitches for domestic and international cities. When it comes to the international ones, the problem is always the same: a level playing field. "Arguably, one of the reasons driving the NFL's success here at home has been the competitive parity of the league," says Bowers. "I think you can make an argument that playing in London, or even just traveling to and from London, presents a real competitive disadvantage to the teams that are doing it."

Travel and a competitive quagmire

This season, six of the NFL's 32 teams traveled across the Atlantic to play at Wembley Stadium, the home for the home for International Series games since 2007. Those games presented their own logistical challenges, one of which apparently involved the Jets transporting 350 rolls of toilet paper to replace the thinner version used in England. But having a team permanently based in London creates a whole other set of challenges. Traveling to or from London, with its five-hour time difference, might be a minor inconvenience for East Coast teams, but it could be a serious disadvantage for the West Coast ones. The time zone difference between London and somewhere like San Francisco during much of football season is eight hours, and unless the Concorde gets revived, that flight is going to be at least 10 hours. "When you have elite players who have strict nutritional needs and a team of people monitoring their sleep, food intake, and exercise, and then you throw in these travel and jet lag issues, I wonder how the NFL Players Association would react to that," says Bowers. Waller acknowledges such challenges, and says some scheduling changes would be inevitable. "When you look at our schedule as a league, it becomes apparent if you were ever to put a team in the UK, you're not going to be able to fly it backwards and forwards across the Atlantic on a consecutive week," he says. "You're going to have to play two or three games in the UK, and then two or three games in the US and so on and so forth." Waller points to the Seahawks, who have a tough road schedule due to their geographic location, as proof that travel doesn't necessarily have to be a liability. "That doesn't seem to have affected their ability to be competitive," he says. "I'm not saying that going to London is the same as going to Seattle, but that's the closest proximate we have for that sort of analysis." Of course, other sports have to deal with similar travel headaches. But few of them face the distinct disadvantages that an international football schedule brings. Formula One, for instance, has a grueling schedule filled with logistical challenges, but all the teams are on the same tour. It's a pain in the ass, says Bowers, but it doesn't give any one team a competitive advantage. He likens it to coordinating a big international rock tour. "There are very real challenges of moving things from point A to point B to point C, but all the competitors are doing it so no one really gets an advantage."

These pounds don't make financial sense

Real or perceived, the competitive disadvantages only get compounded when you consider NFL free agents and the draft. How many players (or teams) would realistically want to move to London, where the cost of living (as well as the tax rate) is pretty much guaranteed to be significantly higher? Would a big name free agent ever agree to go there without the London team doubling the next best offer? In recent years, nonresident athletes haven't been too happy with the UK and US's habit of taxing income earned within their borders, either. Specifically, a law that allows for the taxing of a portion of a nonresident athlete's worldwide endorsement income is drawing a lot of criticism. Traditionally, this type of income only gets taxed in the athlete's home country, but both the US and UK take their cut. And when you consider that the actual tax rate applied to a nonresident athlete's income can be as high as 50 percent in London, you start to see how playing there might only attract either the grossly-overpaid or those past their prime. Not a good combination. Waller says the NFL is working on these problems, too, by building relationships with the government on both the local and national level. "You need to see if there are ways to amend the current rules and regulations that would facilitate a permanent team," he says, citing the precedent that was set around the London Olympics and the UEFA Champions League about the tax treatment of athletes in and out of the UK. "I'm not saying we've solved these problems, but we're working on it," he says.

A numbers problem

Another difficulty in bringing the NFL to an international stage will be the number of teams. The most likely scenario for London is to transplant the Jacksonville Jaguars, who've had trouble filling their own stadium in recent years, and who are owned by Shahid Khan, who also happens to own the English Football League Championship team Fulham F.C. But as Nate Silver pointed out last year, if you want to truly expand the league and create new teams, you'd have to fully commit to adding at least four more to keep league equilibrium. After 32, 36 is the next number that can be divided into six divisions of six teams each. Adding those four teams gradually isn't impossible, but having an odd-numbered league along the way creates its own set of problems. That leaves the next best solution: adding them all at once. Considering London, a modern city with modern infrastructure, is taking 15 years of development work to transform into what is maybe an expansion option, how likely would it be to have four extra teams ready to go at one particular point (even if one or two of them are US expansion teams)?

Los Angeles by way of London

For these reasons and more, many consider the London expansion doomed, even if the NFL continues to hold games in the UK. After pointing out some of the same obstacles back in 2013, Bill Barnwell speculated that NFL's real goal might be "to use the specter of a London team as leverage in getting things done in Los Angeles." It's a theory Bowers shares, too. "Part of me wonders how much of all this London blustering is designed to really drive a team or two to Los Angeles," he says. "It's one of those things where if you talk and talk and talk about the expansion to Europe, and you get everyone thinking through all the really tough logistics, you can then kind of slide in with a much easier solution that's likely more lucrative: Los Angeles!"

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