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Building an NFL Expansion Team: Best Cities

If the NFL were to add another team, which city would most likely be awarded the franchise?

I asked, you answered: If the NFL were to expand again, which city should be first to claim a team?

Many of the responses made a point to note that the NFL does not need to, and should not, expand. Expanding by one team alone would cause a vast array of scheduling and divisional headaches, so the league likely would have to increase its stock to at least 34 (and probably 36) teams. That would be stretching the talent pool rather thin, but the NFL’s grip on the sports culture could encourage such growth.

And were the NFL to add, these are the areas they likely would begin their search:

Portland, Ore.

The city of Portland is no rookie when it comes to expansion/relocation buzz, residing on the short list of possibilities should the MLB or NHL ever need a new locale—the Arizona Coyotes still could wind up there in the near future, if they can’t strike an arena deal to stay put. So, there is obvious appeal to the area, and no doubt a decent amount of legwork has gone on behind the scenes to gauge the viability.

The 2016-17 Nielsen ratings data listed Portland as the country’s 25th-largest TV market, ahead of NFL host areas like Baltimore, Indianapolis, Nashville, Kansas City, Cincinnati and (coming soon) Las Vegas. That’s a critical element to keep in mind, of which the NFL is always mindful—Los Angeles’s rank as the No. 2 market was a driving force behind the league’s ceaseless desire to return there.

There’s no questioning the passion of the Portland fan base, which provides rabid support for the NBA’s Blazers and the MLS’s Timbers. The proximity to Nike is an intriguing subplot, although Nike and the NFL already have a contract in place that runs through 2019. An NFL team in Portland might make it easier for Nike to secure its place as the league’s sponsor moving forward.

Pete Christopher of covered some of the possible NFL-to-Portland pitfalls in a 2015 article, including that Portalnd “lacks a potential base of corporate sponsors, where the biggest money comes from” and “taxpayers would surely fight any stadium funding plan that would stick them with the bulk of the bill.”

Still, this is a strong contender.

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San Antonio

We’re but a few months removed from San Antonio emerging as a potential temporary home for the Raiders, as they awaited their Oakland-to-Las Vegas transition, and it’s still possible that arrangement could come to be for the 2019 season. The Alamodome seats 65,000, and the city just invested $50 million to upgrade it. The NFL loves shiny, new arenas, but San Antonio would be far ahead of the curve when it came to securing a venue.

Market size? Check. San Antonio was among the 10 most populous in the country, according to 2016 census estimates, and it ranked 31st on the Nielsen list.

Better yet, it’s a short hop, skip and jump from the border—the NFL’s (and Roger Goodell’s) desire to expand the league footprint in Mexico has been no secret. A third team within the ‘Texas Triangle’ (San Antonio, Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston) would open up even more doors. The NBA also has thrived within that area, thanks to the Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs.

Would the current NFL teams within the so-called triangle be willing to share, though? Doubt it. The biggest obstacle for San Antonio in pursuing a team might be the pushback it would receive from Houston owner Bob McNair and Dallas owner Jerry Jones (especially the latter).

Mexico City

If the NFL wants in on the massive Mexico City market (and the Mexican fan base as a whole), why not go directly to the source? The league is in the midst of a three-year run of regular-season games there, and it consistently has packed crowds into Estadio Azteca, including 103K-plus for a 49ers-Cardinals clash in 2005. More than 73,000 fans witnessed the Raiders-Texans game at a renovated Azteca last year.

Adding an international team would come with its own, unique set of challenges, ranging from how the exchange rate impacts business (the NHL hit a rough patch in 2015 when the loonie’s value fell) to the political fallout.

But with the NFL now playing games in Mexico City, placing a team there would be the next logical step.

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San Diego/St. Louis/Oakland

Grouping these three spots together because the NFL has, on several occasions, returned to places where teams previously resided. It just happened (twice) in Los Angeles, but St. Louis, Houston and Baltimore have witnessed similar developments. Not every relocation scenario has been a carbon copy.

The issue for all three of the recently hit cities, of course, is that they need to provide the league reason to return. These are all sizable markets, but not to the extent of L.A. (Oakland is grouped in with San Jose and San Francisco, so the league is somewhat covered there regardless). They would require new stadiums, which has been a sticking point behind the Chargers, Raiders and Rams’ moves in the first place.

Oklahoma City

About three hours north of Dallas and five south of Kansas City, OKC should be just enough clear of another NFL franchise to make this work. (Jerry Jones, no doubt, again would protest.) This is a passionate football state, and the fans there have had no trouble adopting the Thunder as their NBA franchise.

It’s not a massive TV market, as far as the NFL would be concerned: 41st, just behind Las Vegas but ahead of Jacksonville, New Orleans, Buffalo and Green Bay. Oklahoma City ranked 45th among the country’s top 56 markets in Super Bowl LI ratings. A solid enough presence that it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

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Birmingham, Ala.

The 45th-largest TV market, as it includes the Tuscaloosa and Anniston areas. Therein lies a bit of the problem. It’s the same issue that a city like Columbus would face: the pro franchise probably would play second fiddle to the nearby college team. Obviously, there are current NFL cities in close proximity to very popular college football teams, but breaking into the market would be a different challenge.

Birmingham is one of several cities on our list (Oakland, Portland and San Antonio the others) that hosted a USFL team in the ’80s.

Salt Lake City

If the NFL wants to fill gaps in its map, Salt Lake City certainly makes a lot of sense, because the Utah state capital is several hours removed from any of the nearest, current franchises. It also ranked 10th on Forbes’ 2017 list of the fastest-growing American cities and is No. 31 in Nielsen’s metrics. All positives. So, too, is the sports fan base there, which has loyally supported the NBA’s Jazz and the University of Utah.

One potentially tricky aspect of any NFL-to-Salt Lake City discussion: the NFL’s Sunday schedule. Convincing a Mormon-heavy fan base to turn out on those afternoons could be a tough sell; the NCAA schedules BYU around Sundays, even in the case of big-ticket events like March Madness.


FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver estimated back in 2014 that Toronto already had in place approximately one million NFL fans. The NFL has tapped into that base in the past, taking a Bills regular-season game to Rogers Centre every season from 2008-13.

One issue with that: attendance dwindled over the course of that arrangement, from 52K for the ’08 game down to just 38K in ’13. The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur also wrote recently about issues the city’s CFL team, the Argonauts, has had drawing a crowd (just 13,583 at last week’s opener).

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Other international options

London is the no-brainer option, since the NFL has expanded its presence there—four regular-season games will be played in London this year, split between Wembley and Twickenham Stadiums.

The travel grind is a significant hurdle. Last year, the Colts became the first team forced to play the week after a London trip, and Albert Breer of The MMQB reported then that the league would “survey Colts players and coaches about how coming back [without] a bye went.” The Colts did win the following week, 29-23 over Chicago.

The Montreal metropolitan area now has a population standing upwards of four million, as of 2016—Toronto is the lone Canadian city with more people. How many of them could be convinced to love the NFL? The CFL’s Alouettes averaged 20,377 fans per home game last year, via CFLdb.

If the NFL does go international, Mexico City, Toronto and London would be the three favorites, by a sizable margin.