Game Plan: NFL Believes London is Ready for Team; 2022 Target is Doable

NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller gives an update on how the league is progressing in Europe, ahead of Jaguars-Ravens at Wembley in Week 3
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London might not be getting a team in the near future. But as the NFL’s executive vice president of international, Mark Waller, sees it, the UK’s capital city is ready for one.

“We’ve proven clearly that the level of support is here from a fan perspective, a stadium and stadium ownership perspective and from a city and government perspective,” Waller said over the phone from London late Wednesday afternoon. “We’ll get a lot of support if and when we need it.”

On Sunday, the league will cut the ribbon on the second decade of the International Series, which started in 2007 with its first regular-season game overseas, a 13-10 win for the Super Bowl champion-to-be Giants over a woeful Dolphins team. The NFL has come a long way since.

The league will play four games in London this year for the first time, and is in its second year back in Mexico City, with hopes to go to Germany and China down the line. Next year, a stadium that the league worked in partnership with Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League will open. And fan interest, while still not close to the major sports in the UK, has grown steadily.

That brings us to the question that’s been on the docket for years now: Could the NFL become the first major North American sports league to put a team in Europe full-time?

The NFL is fully invested in bringing a franchise to London, and the target date seems to be 2022.

The NFL is fully invested in bringing a franchise to London, and the target date seems to be 2022.

The answer is definitely maybe. Waller says the league’s international wing has put the pieces in place and now has to keep growing on its progress and wait for a franchise to raise its hand.

“If you think about LA, there were years and years where we weren’t in LA, and then an owner decided to make a move and start building a stadium,” Waller said. “So our job is to make sure, for London, that if and when an owner feels it’s the right move to make, we’re ready for it. And that’s what we’ve put in place—great fan base, stadium options and a real focus on feasibility and logistics.

“The one thing we can’t show yet: can a team be competitive week in and week out? That’s why I’d like to do back-to-back weeks with the same team (next year), to get real sense of how that works. We’ll try to make that happen.”

In this week’s Game Plan we’re going to take a look at the NFL’s situation in a now two-teamed Los Angeles; the NFLPA’s decision to stick with DeMaurice Smith; the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator; the Bengals’ even newer offensive coordinator; Joe Thomas’s amazing streak; and so much more to get you set for Week 3.

But we start with the Jaguars-Ravens game slated for Sunday morning (afternoon, on the ground in London) at Wembley, and the league’s massive effort to take its distinctly American game global. And indulge me on this one, as I remain incredibly interested in the idea that we could have a team playing on the other side of the Atlantic full-time.

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Now, I’m like everyone else on this, which is to say I’m unsure how a team would be received over there on a full-time basis. But I’ve talked to Waller for years on this subject, and the truth is he hasn’t moved far off his position. The goal, to start, was to have a team in London at the International Series’ 15-year mark. We’re two-thirds of the way there, and Waller thinks 2022 is doable.

“Absolutely,” he says. “And that aligns well from a CBA and union standpoint—that would need to be part of a union agreement. Not to say we couldn’t bargain it separately, but obviously if we’re doing it around that time, that would make sense. And from a media/broadcast standpoint, we’d need to think it through. It feels to me like all the indicators are there, showing that’s still a realistic timeframe.”

Indeed, the CBA expires in March 2021 and the broadcast deals are up after the 2022 season, so the timing works. What’s left to figure out in London? The biggest issues are logistical.

Having a team five time zones from New York and eight time zones from Los Angeles isn’t ideal, and competitive-balance issues resulting from that can’t be ignored. To ease the issues, Waller says the hope is to give a London team two facilities—one in the UK and another somewhere in the U.S. southeast.

Waller explains, “If the team had a second base on the East Coast, and when they came over to the States they were going back to a familiar place, there’s a general feel [among teams] that it would solve a vast number of the operational issues, whether it’s transportation issues, talent issues and making sure week-in, week-out, you have the talent you need on hand, increasingly there’s belief that’s the right solution.”

Would it be perfect? No. Having Tuesday free-agent workouts in, say, Atlanta to fill an immediate need for the London team wouldn’t be ideal. Neither would, say, a London vs. Seattle game in the wild-card round of the playoffs. But that doesn’t make these things impossible.

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And the NFL will get an interesting snapshot of how it might work when the Rams go to the UK in late October. They’ll play in Jacksonville on Oct. 15, then spend the week in Northern Florida before flying to London on Thursday night ahead of their Oct. 22 game against the Cardinals at Twickenham Stadium.

Another test Waller was hoping to conduct this year—and hopes to get in 2018—is to have a team play back-to-back games in London, which would allow the league a better look at how being there would affect a franchise’s overall operation. “It’s a bit of a disappointment that we didn’t have a team playing two games this year,” he said. “We couldn’t make it work from a scheduling standpoint.”

Waller also knows that getting a team to do it won’t necessarily be easy, but the idea of getting a club to waive its right to a bye following a trip to the UK wasn’t a simple proposition either. The Colts did it last year—and won the following week—and three teams (Ravens, Jaguars, Dolphins) will do it this year. And one of those three, Baltimore, actually requested it.

These are all signs that progress is being made, and Waller’s department is moving forward. To be sure, it’s not as if there’s a set plan to have a team over there, and there are alternatives to be had.

The plan for now is to stick to four games in 2018. “I don’t think we need to play more games in London to prove that the opportunity is here,” Waller said. But the idea of growing that number raises another option that’s been bandied about—an annual eight-game schedule in the UK with each team being required to make the trip every other year.

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There’s no question the idea of having an NFL team over there still sounds a little crazy. But it’s not quite as nuts as it was 10 years ago, when the Giants and Dolphins played on a soccer pitch that quickly devolved into a mud pit. At that point, the NFL wasn’t even up to speed on the problems that grass would present, and a lot of people in the stands weren’t quite sure what to make of what they were watching.

“All of the things that we talked about confirm our belief that it’s a very doable possibility,” Waller said. “This year we’ll do four games, and 40,000 tickets for each game are bought by the same people, so as far as building a season-ticket base, that’s a meaningful number now. And the fact that we’ve got so many teams that have been over here and have had a good experience is a huge positive.

“We feel confident that the fan base is here, and that the logistics work.”

The NFL has come a long way.

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