As part of an ongoing series imagining the next 50 years of football, SI and Wired look at the NFL's hopes for world domination
This is an article from the Jan. 11, 2016 issue
THE NFL has made no secret of its desire to bring American football to the international stage. In fact, after regular-season games at Wembley Stadium for nine straight seasons—with a deal in place to continue them through 2020—you could argue that a full-time franchise in London is possible.
Possible and probable are very different things, however. The logistics of permanently moving a team to London remain daunting—to say nothing of installing franchises in additional countries. No one knows this better than Mark Waller. As the NFL's executive vice president of International, he believes 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 over time," says Waller, referring to the NFL's 15-year plan to set up a London team. "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 that the league has never played more than three games in London in a season. Waller is 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 week that teams currently get for playing in the U.K. or finding ways to mitigate the competitive issues involving travel and jet lag, there are plenty of remaining obstacles to the NFL's world-wide ambitions.
TO GET a 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 is choosing the right city. That means finding a place with a large NFL fan base—and one that could grow enough to support a team.
Before launching the international series in 2007, the NFL looked at the demographics and the potential for growth within the existing competitive sports environment in London. "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 why the NFL isn't aiming its expansion efforts a little closer to home—like, say, Mexico—the answer is basically stadiums. By some estimates Mexico City has an American football fan base more than three times the size of London's. What it doesn't have are modern stadium options. "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 up-to-date venues exist, it doesn't matter how massive the fan base is.
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 clinical assistant professor of sport management at the University of Texas. Bowers designed (and used to teach) a course in which his students came up with an NFL expansion bid as a final project, and he says he's seen just about every combination of proposed cities imaginable.
When it comes to the international ones, the problem is always the same: a level playing field. 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."
THIS SEASON six of the NFL's 32 teams traveled across the Atlantic to play at Wembley. Those games presented their own challenges, one of which 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 concerns. 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.
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 U.K., 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 U.K., and then two or three games in the U.S., and so on."
Real or perceived, the competitive disadvantages only get compounded when you consider NFL free agents. How many players (or teams) would realistically want to move to London, where the cost of living (as well as the tax rate) is significantly higher? Would a big-name free agent ever agree to go there without the London team's doubling the next best offer?
In recent years nonresident athletes haven't been happy with the U.K. and U.S.'s habit of taxing income earned within their borders, either; a law that allows for the taxing 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 now both the U.S. and U.K. have started taking a cut.
Waller says the NFL is working on these problems, too, by building relationships with the government on both the local and the national levels. "You need to see if there are ways to amend the current rules and regulations," he says, citing the precedent that was set around the London Olympics and the UEFA Champions League.
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 have had trouble filling their own stadium in recent years, and who are owned by Shahid Khan, who also happens to own the Premier League team Fulham F.C. But as FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver has pointed out, if the league wanted to expand, they'd have to commit to adding at least four teams to keep 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 really an option. Considering that London, a modern city with modern infrastructure, is taking 15 years of development work to transform into what is maybe an expansion option, how would you get an additional three teams ready to go at the same time (even if one or two of them are U.S. expansion teams)?
For these reasons and more, many consider the London expansion doomed, even if the NFL continues to hold games in the U.K. After pointing out some of the same obstacles back in 2013, Grantland's Bill Barnwell speculated that the 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. "It's one of those things where if you talk and talk and talk about the expansion to Europe," he says, "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!"
Got more pigskin-pointed questions for our crystal ball? You can further explore the future of football with our Super Bowl 100 series, presented by Gatorade and Microsoft Surface, at SI.com/sb100 and Wired.com/sb100