Is London Really Calling?

March 10, 2014

The NFL wants to move to London, which is understandable because, really, who wouldn't want to move to London? It's a beautiful city, and in recent years the British learned to supplement their traditional dining options with actual food. Still, the NFL's desire to place a team there raises a few questions, starting with: Huh?

Pro football is such a moneymaking machine that commissioner Roger Goodell could probably print $100 bills, put his face on them and sell them for $150. So when he says he wants to put a team in London, we shrug and assume he can put a team in London, or Paris, or Rio de Janeiro, or maybe even Los Angeles. London needs a football team about as much as the United States needs the monarchy, but the NFL usually gets what the NFL wants.

"You are proving you are worthy of a franchise," Goodell told London fans last fall, as though he were preparing to bestow knighthood on the masses instead of trying to expand a multibillion-dollar business.

I would love to see the CEO of McDonald's say, "You are proving you are worthy of a franchise!" every time a new set of golden arches goes up in Topeka. Does London want a franchise? The league can point to its successful special events there—the three games planned for 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium this season are already sold out—as proof that the answer is yes, but that is like saying that you enjoyed having your in-laws over for dinner, so they should move in. I will believe Londoners want an NFL team when Pippa Middleton knows who Mel Kiper Jr. is.

A franchise in London may look great in a marketing study, but how would it look on the field? Almost every player in the NFL is American, so a London team would have to persuade free agents to live between five and eight time zones from home. How would that pitch go? Do you want to start at outside linebacker and get really far away from your ex-girlfriends? A London team's only natural rivalry is with New England, and that feud has been dormant for more than 200 years. The NFL's blackout policy means that if London's team doesn't sell out a game, Londoners won't get to watch it on TV, which gives the whole enterprise an all-or-nothing feel: London either falls madly in love with its team or won't know it exists at all.

Then there is the little matter of actually playing the games. Technology has made the world smaller, but it is still difficult to sack a quarterback over Skype. London is a six-hour flight from Boston, an eight-hour flight from Chicago and a 10-hour flight from San Francisco. As any business traveler knows, after that long on a plane, bodies remain in an upright and locked position; after I fly across an ocean, I can barely remember my name, let alone a snap count. No coach in NFL history has ever said, "You know, this schedule would be easier if we played half our games on another continent." In January, the 49ers played consecutive playoff games in Green Bay, Charlotte and Seattle. How would a London team handle that?

The travel time alone should be a deal-killer, and perhaps it will be. But the NFL will never admit that some parts of the world don't need the NFL.

If you don't believe me, ask Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema, who during the Olympics told CNBC that his skaters kicked Team USA's butt because: "You have a lot of attention on a foolish sport like American football and you waste a lot of talent, athletic talent, on a sport that is meant to kill each other, to injure each other.... You want to compete against the world [in other sports] when you waste a lot of time and good talent on a sport that sucks."

Clearly, the Dutch are not worthy of a franchise. Also, I must have missed the lines of people in South America hoping to beat the Dutch in speedskating. But Anema has a point. Some national obsessions are not contagious. You can keep your version of blood pudding, London, and we'll keep ours.

I will believe LONDONERS WANT AN NFL TEAM when Pippa Middleton knows who Mel Kiper Jr. is.

Should the NFL expand overseas?

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PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)