Coming to a Market Near You: An American Football Team
The London Lions? No it’s not an NFL franchise yet, though it does have a nice ring to it—a lot to admit coming from a Michigan native. The idea of an American football team based in London is no longer a far-off fantasy for wishful Londoners and profit-minded NFL executives as a permanent London franchise could be established within five years according to some analysts.
The Detroit Lions were the latest team to cross the Atlantic for one of the National Football League’s three expeditionary games held in London, squaring off with the Kansas City Chiefs November 1. While the game may have been lackluster—Kansas City routed Detroit 45 to 10—the event itself was more impressive: it attracted 83,624 spectators, the highest turnout since 2007.
The Lions-Chiefs match-up ended this year’s successful NFL expedition tour. Combined average attendance this year increased to 83,877 from last year’s three-game average of 83,523. These average attendance figures are more significant considering that they are the second highest in the NFL, behind only the Dallas Cowboys, according to USA Today.
While the NFL did not release its revenue intake from the London games, it’s fair to say there is a lot of media buzz that an NFL team may be staying in London permanently.
Earlier this month, the NFL signed a contract with London’s Twickenham Stadium that would allow for at least three regular season NFL expedition games to be played at the rugby arena each year. In the past, NFL expedition games were held at London’s larger Wembley Stadium, though new scheduling conflicts have forced a venue change. The NFL has also signed a 10-year, two-game a season contract with Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, which is set to open in 2018.
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When it comes to revenue, the NFL is the world’s largest cash cow and only continues to grow fatter with estimates of a $13 billion take this season, up from $12 billion last season and an increase of more than 15 percent over the 2013 season, according to CNN Money. But while its revenue is projected to hit $25 billion by 2027, the NFL leadership fears that the American market is close to saturation, as Deadspin reported. Instead of adding more games to its 17-week season, the NFL has attempted to expand its market overseas, beginning with its first London expedition game in 2007.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone further in proposing expedition games outside of English-speaking countries. Mexico City could host its first NFL game as early as next year, with a one-game per year arrangement beginning in 2017 or 2018, the Spanish sports newspaper AS reported. The NFL is also considering expedition games in Germany and moving the Pro Bowl to Brazil in 2017.
The idea for a permanent London NFL team is not new, however, with NFL UK officials declaring in 2007 that a London team was only 15 years away. Being at the halfway point on that timeline, it’s time to seriously consider the possibility of an American football team on Regent Street. “Every year there is something new,” NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood told The National. “If the whole point is feeling good about the end game and certain about the likelihood of success, every single year we’re answering further questions and getting closer to it.”
London would be the largest city to host an NFL team if one does ultimately materialize. With a shared franchise not under discussion, four teams could feasibly make the move across the Atlantic: the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders, the Saint Louis Rams or the San Diego Chargers. The Jaguars, whose owner also owns the London-based Fulham F.C., is the only team that has a one-game annual contract with Wembley Stadium, which runs through 2020.
Despite the backing of the UK treasury chief, Chancellor George Osborne, who told Forbes that he hopes to bring a franchise to London within five years, a London team would not be without its challenges.
In addition to hurdles such as higher taxes, visa restrictions, European Union competition laws, the NFL would struggle with free movement regulations, which is unheard of for an American sports league. Conversely, the NFL Draft and its requirement that a player be three years removed from high school before entering the NFL is not only alien to Europe, but may also violate European antitrust laws.
Furthermore, the NFL’s Player Association, which doesn’t have vote in the decision, could voice strong opposition to the changes in working conditions that come with an international franchise. American players would likely object and demand compensation for the extra burdens placed on them due to transatlantic travel and higher taxes. The league would also have to consider the emotional strains players might undergo when they leave their families to play overseas.
“It’s gonna take a visionary owner to say, ‘I’m willing to overcome all that,'” NFL Senior Vice President Mark Waller told NFL.com. “It’s a much better market for us now than it was and fan interest is growing.”
But will Londoners embrace an American football franchise?
While turnout has steadily increased as more games have been held in the UK, for many the sport is seen largely as a novelty. A similar comparison can be drawn in the US when an American stadium sells out an English Premier League expedition match even though Major League Soccer continues to have a dismal following.
In theory, Londoners would be united in their allegiance to a single American football franchise, unlike the slew of soccer allegiances that dot the island nation. Although, it’s unclear how far that loyalty will go when a London team will likely consist entirely of American athletes—only four British players are currently in the NFL.
However, American football has witnessed several experiments over the past few decades that make the concept of a London franchise seem less of a long shot and more of a ‘Why not?’ scenario. In the 1980s, the short-lived American Football League was formed, scheduling their season in the spring and early summer. The NFL also oversaw NFL Europe, or the World League of American Football, that ran from 1989 through 2007 and included four European teams.
If the NFL and the NFLPA can find common ground while also finding a way to overcome the numerous UK and EU regulations, then a London franchise may kick off in as little as five years. After all, when there are profits to be made and stadiums to be filled, even though it’s easy for many critics to point to such fiascos as Donald Trump and his New Jersey Generals or the London Monarchs, it’s more than likely that some franchise and its ambitious owner will set up shop and cash in.