It seems likelier now than it ever has before that the NFL will end up with a team playing in London on a full-time basis. The Jacksonville Jaguars are playing a home game in London each of the next four seasons, and the league is playing two games in England in 2013, with the Vikings hosting the Steelers and the Jags playing the 49ers. Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan even recently bought the London-based Fulham soccer club, furthering his business ties in the British capital.1 With the Jaguars struggling to fill out their stadium on a regular basis,2 speculation naturally exists that the Jaguars could eventually make London their permanent home. An expansion team (paired with another team, likely in Los Angeles) is also a possibility. In either case, the league certainly seems more serious about evaluating the London market as a place for overseas expansion in the near future.
Khan isn’t the only owner with ties to English soccer; Rams owner Stan Kroenke is the largest shareholder in the mammoth club Arsenal, while the Glazer family owns both the Buccaneers and Manchester United, the latter of which is estimated to be the second-most expensive sports team on the planet.
This is a touchy subject for angry Jaguars fans, who are fond of pointing out that their attendance percentage is higher than that of several other clubs, including some who would never be associated with a disinterested fan base. It’s true that the Jaguars sell a large percentage of the tickets that are available to their games — at 96.8 percent last year, they were ahead of the Packers, Jets, and Redskins, coming in 17th of 32 teams. However, that figure is distorted by the tarps installed by the organization that limit the number of seats available for each game. The stadium’s typical capacity for a Jags game is about 67,246, but before the tarps were installed, the stadium’s capacity was 76,877. Use that second figure and the Jaguars’ percentage of tickets sold is closer to 84.5 percent, which would be the fourth-worst rate in football. (To be fair, the Jaguars aren’t the only team to adulterate their ticket sales.)
The benefits to such a market are clear: It would open up a brand-new source of revenue for the league by creating both a local community of dedicated fans and a European market that would be interested in the television rights to the NFL product. The Premier League, England’s top-level soccer league, is the most valuable sporting enterprise on the planet precisely because it attracts worldwide interest to an extent that no other league can match.3 The Premier League is the only competition on the planet that the NFL looks at longingly, at least in terms of scope: While the NFL can sell media rights in North America, the Premier League can sell the right to broadcast its games to literally hundreds of countries around the globe. If the NFL really wants to hit $25 billion in revenue per year, it’ll probably need to make its imprint larger.
In a not-particularly-unrelated coincidence, the Premier League is also the most bet-upon sporting league in the world.
You can understand why the NFL would want to expand to Europe. But will it work? I’m very, very skeptical that a team in London would work on any sort of practical level. And while some of the reasons are obvious, the more meaningful ones show up after some careful consideration.
The Location and the Fans
A European NFL team would almost surely be set in London, where the league conducts its annual International Series. Those games are played at the new Wembley Stadium, which would be a stadium fit to NFL specifications and one that would mostly be available; outside of World Cup qualifiers and concerts in the first half of September, Wembley tends to stay dormant for major events until late spring. The exception is for the occasional rugby match, which could be accommodated on an as-needed basis.
London is obviously an internationally renowned city, and Wembley is easy to get to, which helps make the International Series games played there a success, but there’s a gap worth noting in the makeup of the people who go to those games. I went to the Wembley tilt between the 49ers and Broncos in October 2010 and found that the crowd wasn’t by any means full of Londoners. Instead, it was a crowd consisting almost entirely of fans from around Europe who had traveled to London for the game.
That experience initially raised my suspicions about a London team. The fans I spoke to and rode the train with that day were mostly close observers of the NFL, hard-core fans who kept impossible hours (and/or built intense spoiler-free torrent communities) to see as much of the game they loved as possible. It was a no-brainer for them to travel from Germany or Ireland or Slovenia to England to see a meaningful NFL game once per year while taking a short vacation in London and spending a few hundred euros altogether. Doing that once a year is feasible for most people. If a team were based full-time in London, though, would a fan in Germany shell out those same few hundred euros eight times per year to travel to London and see that team play every other week? I’m very skeptical that they would be inclined to do so. And if they’re not coming, I don’t think the NFL would sell out Wembley eight times a year, year-after-year, or come particularly close. That’s why it’s very important to see how the European market responds to this second game; if the league can gets fans around Europe to make two trips to England, they might have more faith in turning them into regular repeat customers.
There’s also the distinct possibility that fans in Europe wouldn’t back a London team. That 49ers-Broncos game was a jerseygasm of various teams and players from the past 20 years, but it certainly wasn’t a game dominated by support for either of the two teams actually playing. The people heading to the games were fans of the NFL and a particular team within the NFL, not necessarily fans of one of the teams that was actually suiting up. The biggest reaction of the night was afforded to retired Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, not any of the players on the field. And in talking to people who have been to several of the International Series games, my experience was not atypical. There’s no guarantee that, say, a Vikings fan in Manchester would become a fan of a London team just because a franchise moved to England. There’s definitely interest within Europe in American football, but that interest might not translate very well into steady support for a full-time team.
Anybody who’s given a European team some thought invariably starts wondering about the travel concerns that would arise after such a move. Traveling over an ocean, even on a private jet, takes time out of busy weeks and takes a toll on players’ bodies. Traveling from London to the East Coast wouldn’t be a huge hindrance, as the team would roughly stay on the same schedule and be on a plane for only about seven hours.
On the other hand, imagine if our London team had to travel from the West Coast after a 1 p.m. game there; assuming its flight would take off at about 7 p.m. PT, the team would get back to London at about 2 p.m. the following day, both messing with the players’ bodies and giving the rest of the league a head start in preparation time for the following week. Even during home games, our London team would likely play at 6 p.m. GMT to allow the league to air those home games during the 1 p.m. hour on the East Coast, meaning the team would be playing a minimum of eight night games a year, likely resulting in quieter practice days on Monday. That’s a competitive disadvantage for a team that already has plenty of competitive disadvantages. It’s enough to consider calling the whole thing off.
Running an NFL team in London would, in itself, be an incredible challenge. The closest comparison I could think of would be to running the Colorado Rockies during the mid-’90s, when they were at their park-inflated offensive best and defensive worst. You would have to dramatically overhaul and rethink just about every process that a team normally takes for granted, because your home base would place you at an enormous disadvantage.
Going through the aforementioned travel issues would make your team a destination of last resort for many of the league’s players. While London is obviously a vibrant, active city, most players would likely not want to spend an extra half-day per week on planes, nor would they want to relocate to somewhere so … foreign. England’s tax laws and London’s high cost of living would also impose financial concerns. There would be exceptions, of course: the occasional adventurous veteran here or there, plus players desperate for a guaranteed NFL deal when one might not otherwise be available, but you would have to run this franchise assuming that you would never acquire any desirable free agent without having to double the next-best offer out there.
Your best bet would then be to build through the draft, but even then, there would still be no guarantee you would be able to re-sign your players when their contracts came due. The general manager of a London-based team would have to be incredibly aggressive in either locking players up to long-term contracts or dealing them to acquire more draft picks, which would end up being the only way to get upper-echelon players to suit up in London: by eliminating all other options.4
Of course, a London team would also be susceptible to more threats of holdouts from draft picks than any other NFL team.
I’ve included a number of problems that would likely pop up with a London-based team. Some of them are unsolvable; short of recertifying and rebuilding the Concorde, it’s simply going to take too long to get to and from London to make playing for this team very much fun. But there are ways that the NFL and the owners of the franchise in question could make their respective lives easier and make a London team more palatable to fans, players, and owners alike.
Give the London team a larger salary cap (or more draft picks) to work with. With differing tax rules and the unique burden of playing on a different continent, a London-based team would likely be unable to compete on a level playing field with the other teams in the NFL. To create a truly fair situation, the London team would have to enjoy some benefits not provided to the rest of the league. The simplest way would be by giving it a larger salary cap to work with. If the London franchise had an extra $30 million per year in cap space to throw at free agents, it might actually have a shot at being competitive in that marketplace or some reasonable hope of re-signing its own star players before they hit unrestricted free agency.
There’s actually a worldwide precedent for this. In Australia, the Sydney Swans of the Australian Football League enjoy a larger salary cap than the rest of the league because of a Cost of Living Allowance given to the team in Australia’s most populous and expensive city. It is probably not a coincidence that the Swans are also one of the league’s most successful franchises, having made the playoffs more frequently than any other AFL team since 1995.
At the same time, can you imagine what this allowance would create? Every big-market team in the league would start screaming about how it also needed a Cost of Living Allowance to adjust for its situation, too. You don’t think Jerry Jones has already thought about proposing this to the NFL? I promise you that he has.
Have an American base for the team. While the team would play its home games in London, there’s no need, necessarily, for the team to reside there on a full-time basis. A London team could choose to have a full-time American base or facility that would allow it to practice in the States and possibly conduct part or all of training camp in America while serving as, at the bare minimum, a temporary home in between road games. It would make a lot more sense for the London team to stay in America when playing two consecutive road games than it would to fly back to London and then return Stateside. It could even serve as a home base for players who don’t want to live in London on a full-time basis.
Finding a location for that American base is much tougher. Ideally, you would want it to be a destination on the East Coast that already receives direct flights from England, but one that also isn’t directly affiliated with an NFL team, which would likely balk at another organization building facilities in its backyard. Toronto would be an option, but that would defeat the purpose of having a domestic location. Really, there are two good candidates: Raleigh and Orlando, with Orlando likely winning out. Orlando’s a minimum of 90 minutes away from any of the other NFL organizations in Florida, it’s a reasonably popular destination for players after retirement, and Florida’s lack of a state income tax (wildly speculating here) might allow for some tax shenanigans, saving players millions of dollars in the process.
Create special scheduling rules for this team. It would be unfair for this team to have a typical schedule; consider that teams who travel to London for the International Series are always given a bye after their trip overseas, a benefit the London-based team obviously couldn’t receive. Having this team travel to and from the West Coast in the course of three days would be a huge strike against them in the ensuing game.
As a result, the league would need to coddle the London team while scheduling its matchups. The NFL would likely need to schedule the London team’s season in home/away blocks, with several games at home followed by several consecutive tilts on the road, during which it could stay in the States and remain adjusted to the new time zones and schedules here. It would almost surely make just one trip to the West Coast per year, playing all its games there in one fell swoop before taking a bye on its trip home.
That would still cost teams who had to travel to London to play the new franchise. If the season opens with a game in London, for example, the opposing team would not particularly want to take its bye in Week 2 and play 15 consecutive games afterward. As a result, the league would likely have to return to the two–bye week schedule that it briefly introduced in 1993, ensuring that any team returning from England would get a bye while also giving it a break later in the campaign. Teams that weren’t scheduled to play London would just have to enjoy the extra week off.
Of course, if this London team ever made the playoffs, the travel alone would throw things into chaos. But I don’t think that would happen very frequently.
The reality is that making all these changes would create more problems than a London team is probably worth. It’s easy to imagine the NFL staring at London as a possible destination for a future franchise, with a ready-built stadium and an enormous potential market for fresh fans, but reality tells us it would be playing a different game than the league’s other franchises. That’s just not consistent with how the league runs things. In the long run, I suspect that the NFL’s interest is really to use the specter of a London team as leverage in getting things done in Los Angeles, where an incredibly lucrative franchise opportunity lurks with very little of the downside from a London franchise.