The Minnesota Vikings, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the San Francisco 49ers: not names primarily associated with Wembley Stadium, the home of English football.
While striding onto the famous, hallowed turf with three lions splashed across your chest is arguably the pinnacle of success for any young boy dreaming of a career in this country’s national sport, it’s perhaps not a scenario envisaged by many of their American counterparts.
What was once the location of one of England’s greatest ever sporting triumphs – the World Cup victory of 1966 – now plays host to multiple fixtures in the National Football League (NFL), with the sport’s premier showpiece, the Super Bowl, even rumoured to be eyeing up a trip to London in the future.
But before British NFL fans start jumping for joy at the prospect of seeing one of the world’s biggest annual sporting events in their own back yard, it’s worth pointing out that any such arrangement would require a permanent American Football franchise here in Britain, an idea that brings with it a plethora of issues and difficulties.
Yes, the London International Series has been an unbridled success since it was reborn in 2007, as has been exemplified by the expansion from one game a year to two in 2013, and three in 2014. When the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins met in the maiden match at Wembley, the first 40,000 tickets sold out in 90 minutes. Each one of the eight games that have come and gone so far have been sell-out’s, or as good as, with the lowest turnout falling just under the 77,000 mark in 2011.
This season’s match between the Vikings and the Steelers fully demonstrated how far organisers have come in making such occasions a practical and commercial success. Minnesota, who were technically the home side, flew across the Atlantic on Monday, six days ahead of the match, and began a week full of media events, public meetings and open training sessions. Pittsburgh arrived on Friday and joined their rivals for the NFL Regent Street takeover, which proved a masterstroke: providing fans from both sides of the pond the chance to turn game-day into a full blown weekend, while also prompting a massive financial boost for merchandise vendors. On game-day, drummers, cheerleaders and a variety of other Americanisms made for a show any West End director would be proud of.
To top of the whole experience, fans were treated to an entertaining and hard-fought game between two teams that, at the time, were both still fighting for their first win of the year. They witnessed the league’s MVP (most valuable player) Adrian Peterson score twice and the Steelers fall just short on a final drive that, if successful, could have taken the game into overtime.
At face value, London has everything in place to sustain an NFL Franchise. In fact, for a city with six Premier League football teams, which is 18 months on from hosting a hugely successful Olympic Games, the logistics of accommodating eight regular season home fixtures, and theoretically as many as three playoff matches, for an American Football team are relatively simple. All the games will take place between the months of September and January, when there are no cup finals or playoff games clogging up Wembley’s schedule, and visiting teams will fly out to the English capital during the week.
The major issue will be in sustaining the sport’s popularity. Sure, promoters can pull out all the stocks and sell out Wembley once, twice, three times a year – but when it becomes a by-weekly event, how many fans will have the desire, or indeed the financial capabilities, to continue attending. Ticket prices rival those of any top level Premier League fixture, with side-line seats worth upwards of £100 a game, while even the so called ‘cheap seats’ will still cost you £35 a pop.
Previous attempts to host regular American Football matches in England have already failed, with interest simply fizzling out. The little publicised European League, which was created by the NFL in the 1990’s, included teams from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain before it folded in 2007. The league also hosted the American Bowl between 1986 and 2005, in various countries across the world. Eight times the NFL came to London, with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions 13 all draw in 1993 the last of those occasions.
What could yet swing this latest attempt in favour of a continued NFL presence in London is the long-term commitment of the Jaguars, who are owned by Fulham boss Shahid Khan. Few would argue with Jacksonville being billed as one of the lesser franchises currently available. They are certainly far from the likes of the glamorous names commonly associated with the sport: your Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, or Denver Broncos. Founded in 1993, the Jags have never won, or even attended a Super Bowl, and have made only six playoff appearances – the last of which came in 2007.
But if anything, this all counts to our advantage if we hope to gain our own NFL franchise. London would not be robbing America of one of its most historical and most loved teams. To be fair to them, they have had their moments. Tom Coughlin led them to back-to-back division titles in the late 1990’s, as they reached the post-season four years in a row. Ultimately, geography has been least kind to them. As one of three Florida state teams – along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins – they are fighting for a limited number of supporters and business. Their poor form of recent years had coincided with dwindling attendances, and while NFL purists would argue that a transition from Jacksonville to London would be ludicrous, it is far more realistic than Britain attempting to get its own expansion team off the ground.
The Jaguars may have undergone a difficult era since the turn of the century, but they still have the setup and security of a recognised NFL team and, vitally, an inclusion in the draft responsible for assigning them new players. For Britain to sell the idea of an expansion team to the NFL, they would need to prove that they deserved their place. This would be unlikely.
Firstly, because so few British players are currently plying their trade in the league: with only Osi Umenyiora (Atlanta Falcons) and Lawrence Tynes (Buccaneers), who both won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in 2011, getting regular game time. This can be traced back to the fact that the setup for developing young players in the US is far superior to anywhere else in the world.
Since Princeton and Rutgers University played the first intercollegiate football game between two American teams in 1869, the most sophisticated system for moulding future NFL stars has been developed. Unlike the Premier League, the NFL is far from overburdened with foreign stars. Instead, they have a vast pool of home-based talent from which to select from, with a season’s lowest ranked franchise getting first pick of players in the next season’s draft, as an attempt to keep the teams on a level footing. This throws up another issue for a British franchise, they would need to be included in the draft to stay competitive and, the players that were drafted would most likely need to be American players willing to play their football in England on a regular basis.
American Football is a growing sport in the UK, especially amongst schools and Universities. Both the BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) League, which has 76 representatives, and the BAFA National League (50 teams) have been expanding at a respectable rate in recent years, while a Great Britain Women’s team played their first competitive match in October 2013, defeating Sweden 27-10. However, it would take years, even decades before any nation other than America could sustain its own franchise with regionally sourced players.
Any British or British-based franchise would need to prevent their players from requesting a move to an American team: which its brightest prospects will almost inevitably do. Earlier this year, Mancunian Menelik Watson was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, while fellow Brit’s Tom Wort and Lawrence Okoye – the UK discus record-holder – were selected as undrafted free agents by the Tennessee Titans, and San Francisco 49ers respectively. The trio have so far managed just one NFL start between them, but demonstrated clearly that the best American Football players from around the world will always want to play in America.
Despite this, NFL chiefs are desperate to see such a plan pushed through, as it will massively assist in expanding American Football into a global game. Be it Jacksonville, be it a new expansion franchise, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is intent on growing the game beyond domestic borders, starting in London. Unsurprisingly, NFL owners who wish to create and capitalize upon every possible revenue steam are unlikely to put up much in the way of resistance. Yes, there will be logistical, operational and competitive challenges with a London team, but we are talking about a league approaching $10 billion in gross revenue. Simply, these issues can be worked out.
Flights to London from the East Coast take similar (or less) time as cross-country flights, and all team travel is done on private charters. Bye weeks for teams playing in London can be scheduled for the following week, as they are now. And the London team would likely have two or three-week road trips in the United States, something that happens in the NFL with teams playing consecutive West (or East) Coast games. For instance, the Arizona Cardinals stayed in Florida after a Week 3 game in New Orleans earlier this year, allowing them to prepare for a Week 4 game at Tampa Bay.
As to issues with player compensation and increased costs for housing, travel, etc., this will be part of the collective bargaining process with the NFLPA (NFL Players Association). Everything is negotiable. Perhaps players will not be required to stay in London beyond the season, with potential for training camp and offseason workouts at a designated facility in the United States. As to equalizing tax and contractual imbalances, that too can be handled in discussions with the union.
The reaction of American fans is perhaps what’s most likely to hold up such plans, as it’s not an issue so easily solved. Many are sceptical that two sell-out’s in one season suggests that London could manage and maintain its own franchise. This is understandable when you consider the comments of the NFL’s managing director of operations in the United Kingdom, Alistair Kirkwood, who suggested it would require a “tripling’’ of the current football fan base in order to support a team full-time in London. If you have to triple your fan base, and the London game series is already seven years old, the reality is the NFL is not very close to opening up shop in the UK, even if 80,000-plus hardy souls have routinely shown up in sometimes dreadful October weather to watch the league’s annual game at Wembley.
Questions also remain as to why the NFL is not more interested in setting up camp in the football-rabid Mexico City, where the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers drew a then-record 103,000-plus supporters in October 2005, or Toronto, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America and an area with a long history of supporting professional football.
Comparisons can be made to the Premier League’s plans of a 39th game. While that particular money-making vision of league chiefs was shot down this time around, it will inevitably rear its metaphorical head once again and, eventually, it will come to pass – because there is too much money in the idea for it not to happen.
To dismiss the idea of an NFL team in London is folly. With NFL owners looking to unlock every untapped income source, an opening into the European market makes obvious sense. The internationalization of the NFL is not going to remain fixed at a couple of games per year. It will not happen soon, but it will happen eventually. NFL international expansion is not a matter of if, but when.
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