Starting in 2007, the NFL began hosting an annual regular season football game in England. The league calls this the NFL International Series and it has been a big enough success that some NFL insiders and journalists have begun to discuss whether the NFL would consider putting a franchise in Europe. In this article, I’ll discuss the viability of this concept.
If there’s money to be made in it, the NFL will do it. Europe is a vast, rich and untapped market. We know that the league has interest in expanding the reach of the game because it has committed to the International Series. The next logical step would be establishing a permanent presence abroad.
The biggest sports in the world are global and the NFL is not. The Super Bowl is no longer the most-watched annual sporting event in the world. The Champions League Final (the Super Bowl of European professional soccer) holds that title now. The NFL would surely love to take the crown back.
To compete in a global world, American football will have to become a global game.
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I’m not going to bother going too deep into this point because it’s an issue the league will have to tackle when it puts a team in Los Angeles (which is something I expect to happen before there is any real talk of putting a team in Europe).
If there’s a franchise that needs to be moved, the NFL will go down that road. If every franchise is strong and there’s a new owner willing to pay an exorbitant expansion fee, the NFL will surely expand.
I don’t think the current 32-team alignment is so perfect that it can never be changed. The league worked fine when it had fewer than 32 teams. It can function with 33 or 34.
The NFL has already made several attemtps to get Europeans interested in American Football. The most recent attempt was NFL Europe (later renamed NFL Europa), which was formed in 1997 and folded in 2007. NFL Europe was born out of the World League of American Football, another failed attempt to extend the reach of the game across the pond.
If we look at the history of fan interest in NFL Europe, things certainly don’t look too promising. The league began with teams in England, Scotland, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. By the time it died, only the five German teams and a single Dutch team remained. The teams very rarely drew more than 25,000 fans to their games. Clearly, Europeans (outside of Germany, at least) weren’t all that interested in watching minor-league American football.
The recent series of NFL games in London tells another story, though. Attendance at these games has been very good (although some people claim that much of the stadium is filled with Americans). Is it because the games feature top-flight talent? Is it because they are being marketed better than NFL Europe ever was? Is there a newfound interest in the game of American football among Europeans (or Brits, at least)? These are questions that the NFL needs to find answers to.
If the NFL can expand the International Series to include more than one regular season game in Europe and continue to fill the stadium, I think Roger Goodell and company will feel very confident that a franchise in Europe would have sufficient fan support.
This is an easy question for the NFL to answer. If the league expands to Europe, the first franchise will be placed in London, England. Not only has the NFL been playing an annual game at London’s Wembley Stadium, but England is an English-speaking country (obviously) and would be able to consume North American broadcasts of NFL games without requiring translation.
The new franchise could probably play its home games in Wembley Stadium, as the facility is big enough to house an NFL-sized audience (it seats 86,000 for NFL games) and doesn’t have a primary tenant to get in the way (England’s national soccer team calls the stadium home, but it doesn’t play weekly games that would conflict with an NFL schedule). The stadium that London is building for the 2012 Summer Olympics could also be an option.
If a London team was successful, the NFL would likely turn to a German city like Munich or Berlin to host the second European NFL franchise, since NFL Europe was a moderate success in Germany.
Once the league has established that an NFL team in Europe would be financially viable, the work would just be beginning. There are a number of significant logistical hurdles that would have to be overcome in order to ensure success. Issues like work visas and currency exchange could be worked out without much trouble, but there’s nothing you can do to change the amount of travel that would be required or the scheduling issues that would arise.
NFL players complain about traveling to England to play a single game, so it’s hard to imagine how tough it would be for a team based in England to be constantly travelling back and forth between continents. It’s certainly not impossible (pro golfers and tennis players are accustomed to that kind of travel), but it wouldn’t be easy.
The NFL would have to create a custom schedule that limited the amount of travel for its London team. Assuming a 16-game schedule, perhaps the London team could begin the season with four road games in the U.S., go back to London for a four-game home stand, come back to the U.S. for another month of road games, rest during a bye week and then finish the season with four straight at home. This would require long stretches of time “on the road,” but the players might actually feel more at home on American soil. As for U.S.-based teams traveling to play in London, the league would have to consider limiting the number of times a team would be asked to make the trip across the pond.
Currently, teams in different NFL divisions are only scheduled to play each other every three years (four years if the team is in the other conference). Teams in the same division play each other twice a year. Would the London team be in a normal division and would its divisional rivals be expected to travel across the Atlantic every season? This would have to be addressed by the league.
The NFL makes most of its money from the TV contracts it has with FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN (ABC). It won’t put a team in England if it would hurt the television ratings back home. Fans in the U.S. would have to be able to watch their favorite team on television, even when they were playing in Europe.
This means that the European team would have to play a home schedule of nothing but evening games. England is five hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in North America and eight hours ahead of those living on the west coast. If the London team played a home game against the Oakland Raiders at 1 p.m. London time, that game would be shown live on TV at 5 a.m. in California. That’s not exactly ideal for TV ratings.
I imagine most games would be scheduled to start at 6 p.m. London time, which correlates to 1 p.m. here on the east coast. It’s not ideal that Londoners wouldn’t get to experience afternoon football, but at least they will get a full day to tailgate every single week.
We’re not likely to see an NFL team in Europe within the next five to ten years.
Before it happens, I expect to see the NFL expand its International Series to include multiple overseas games each season. We may even see London host a Super Bowl, as such a high-profile event could generate a lot of exposure in Europe.
Once there’s an NFL franchise in Los Angeles and an existing franchise starts talking about relocation, I expect serious talk of a European NFL team to pick up. Until then, it will remain a distant but significant possibility.