What the Chargers' Interest in London Means and What It Doesn't
Nearly three years have passed since the Chargers returned to Los Angeles. In that time, they have won over 60 percent of their games, reached the divisional round of the postseason, and have put themselves in a position to make another playoff push this season.
But despite those efforts, the Chargers have yet to develop a footprint in the Southland. Even as their third season in the market passes the halfway point, they continue to play in front of crowds primarily supporting their opponents. A Week 6 prime-time matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers featured a sea of swinging terrible towels and earsplitting roars when the stadium PA played "Renegade." The de facto road environment hasn't proven to be a one-off situation either, as this past Sunday's tilt with the Green Bay Packers produced a similarly adversarial environment for the Chargers.
With the problem becoming a punchline on sports radio and daily debate shows and no reprieve in sight, the prospect of the Chargers abandoning Los Angeles has resurfaced. The Athletic's Vincent Bonsignore reports that the team "would at least listen if the NFL approached them about London as a possible option" for relocation and other owners would support the move should the franchise pursue it.
The league has made a concerted effort to grow the game internationally, playing a handful of regular-season games in Europe and Mexico in recent seasons as well as exhibitions in Canada. Though not all have gone well — a 2018 contest originally planned for Mexico City's Estadio Azteca moved to Los Angeles due to the playing surface while bad end-zone turf forced a preseason game to shorten the field to 90 yards — the NFL has exploded in popularity outside of the United States.
With a growing international appetite for gridiron football, it follows that the NFL would eventually want a franchise permanently located abroad. Perhaps, the Chargers could become that team.
What it means
The Chargers know that their growth in their new home has come slowly. While the Los Angeles Rams returned to a market they occupied two decades earlier, the Chargers spent more than half a century in San Diego. While that doesn't preclude them from establishing roots in L.A., the path to a sustainable fan base involves winning over young fans and holding onto them into adulthood. That process takes years and becomes incrementally more difficult with another NFL franchise contending for their attention and support.
Conversely, not only does London lack an NFL team, all of Europe does as well. Gaining a strong foothold on another continent could have monumental long-term financial benefits as other American sports leagues have demonstrated. After Shanghai-born center Yao Ming with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the Houston Rockets became one of the most popular teams in China. That recognition turned the Rockets into an international goldmine, contributing to their Forbes valuation of $2.3 billion, seventh highest in basketball.
While the Jacksonville Jaguars have made the deepest inroads to Europe, another NFL franchise could leapfrog them by relocating to London on a permanent basis. European fans of the league now number in the millions with annual growth ensuring no shortage of ticket buyers and television viewers. A city of London's magnitude also offers a deep roster of potential corporate sponsors eager to attach themselves to the most popular sports league in America. These factors would all appeal to Chargers ownership.
What it doesn't mean
While the Chargers might have an open mind about London and its business prospects, that doesn't mean they are actively pursuing a move or that one could happen quickly. The team has committed considerable time and resources to Los Angeles and believes the new stadium will assist its push into the Los Angeles market. SoFi Stadium, the Los Angeles facility set to host Chargers and Rams games starting next year, will offer plenty of additional revenue streams of its own.
And not everyone believes that SoFi Stadium will become another Heinz or Lambeau Field West. Weeks before The Athletic's report on the Chargers' interest in London, a high-ranking team official told Sports Illustrated that the new stadium's cheaper tickets and larger seating capacity will attract more Chargers fans. While the number of fans supporting visiting teams might remain the same, the percentage of the crowd cheering on the Chargers will increase, according to the source.
And while building a fan base in Los Angeles will take time, uprooting the franchise and permanently moving to Europe could take even longer. Any NFL team hoping to relocate to London would have to navigate the murky waters of international taxation and other logistical considerations for players, issues that the league would need to hammer out with foreign governments and the NFLPA before any permanent relocation could become viable.
The NFL's current schedule format — each team has eight home games and eight road games over 17 weeks and rarely plays more than three straight games at their home stadium or away from it — also makes a permanent U.K. team difficult or perhaps impossible given the distance from the United States. Though some ideas for a reworked schedule could lessen the strain on teams visiting London, the league can only do so much to reduce the headache of international travel.
So, while the Chargers might listen to opportunities across the pond, don't interpret that to mean London is their goal, at least right now.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH