Over the last couple of years, the big suggestions in terms of where to expand the NFL in terms of franchise locations have been Los Angeles and the UK. With the Rams now going home, the focus falls squarely on the thought of a NFL franchise making the Leap and setting up shop across the pond. Since 2007, there has been at least one NFL game per season played in the UK as part of the NFL International Series. So far all these games have taken place at Wembley Stadium, but this year will see Twickenham Stadium host its first NFL game and there are also plans for future games to be played at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium.
So far, the International Series has been a resounding success in the UK, with attendances at all but one of the games numbering 80,000+ spectators. The only game to have fallen below this attendance so far was the 2011 game between the Bears and Buccaneers (Attendance 76,981) where ticket sales were delayed due to the Lockout in the offseason.
Looking at these figures suggests that bringing an NFL franchise to the UK would be a great idea, but would this really be right for the league?
A new player base?
Here in the UK, the majority of sports teams find players at a young age and develop them in academies until they are ready for the professional game. The NFL, like most US sports, has a very different way of dealing with player progression. Currently, the majority of players initially enter the NFL from their college. Each year, eligible college players put their name forward for the Draft, where all 32 teams take it in turns to pick the players they think will help the franchise reach the top. Though it is certainly the easiest way to maximize your chance of making it into a team’s plans, this isn’t the only way for players to make a NFL roster. A number of players will end up on teams after being undrafted and go on to have stellar careers, such as former Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went on to lead ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. More recently, there was a huge focus last year on former rugby league superstar Jarryd Hayne, who turned down a lucrative contract with Parramatta Eels to try his luck in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers as a running back/return specialist. After a promising pre-season, he had a topsy-turvy regular season that included him being dropped to the practice squad but then making it back into the 53-man roster as an injury replacement. A new coaching team at San Francisco this year will hopefully help Hayne shine like so many followers of the NRL already know he can.
But how many players with skills perfectly suited for an NFL career are being missed by living in countries where it is not so easy to get the necessary coaching and training to make it at the top level? Setting up a UK franchise could not only lead to more people playing in this country, but also result in a higher level of coaching and training, which could lead to some top UK-based players looking to find their way onto a NFL roster, either through the US college and draft route or by other means.
The national team
The NFL is increasing in popularity here in the UK, and many fans will still be looking to nail their colours to the proverbial mast. A UK franchise would be the perfect lightning rod for new fans to flock to. Though only the NFL’s equivalent to a club, the fact that this would be the only UK-based franchise in the league would mean that a large proportion of the UK NFL fanbase would likely support the local franchise as their team. Even fans, like myself, who are already committed to another franchise would likely take on a UK franchise as their ‘second team’ and consider buying a season ticket to get the experience of supporting a team through a full season’s worth of home matches. The NFL have already appeared to promote the idea of the UK fans getting behind a specific team by having franchises like the Jaguars and the Rams repeatedly returning to London, increasing the fans familiarity with the players and coaches.
A Dis-united Kingdom
The above suggestion is what people certainly hope will happen if a franchise sets up in the UK, but there is certainly a lot of risk attached. A lot of UK NFL fas will have likely picked a franchise to support by now, especially if they have been following the league for a couple of years. Some of these fans may now be committed to their current team so may become fans of the UK team, but there will be some who will only see a UK team as their second team. I’ve been a Tennessee Titans fan since I got into the NFL about 10 years ago. I’ve stayed loyal to them through better or (more often recently) worse. They will always be my franchise. Would established fans want to fork out large amounts of money on a ‘second’ team? I know I wouldn’t! At the moment, there has only been a maximum of 3 games per season, so it is still seen as somewhat of an event. Once there is a full 8 match home schedule, what guarantee is there that the stadium would still be filling on a regular basis?
Due to the Titans’ lack of success in recent years, I’ve picked a team to support each year in the Super Bowl. I went to the Bills v Jaguars game at Wembley in 2015 and had a great time, but I think part of this was that the atmosphere was amazing and the game went right down to the wire. In recent years though, the result has more often than not been a bit one-sided. It’s bad enough keeping interested when watching your favourite team get blown out, but this would only be magnified if it was your second team that you were watching.
Not only this, but what if the UK team is against a US-based team with a strong UK fan-base? There is the chance that the home support is outnumbered by the ‘away’ fans, which will limit the home advantage gained over opponents. There is also the worry that if the team is not successful quickly, fans may begin to lose interest and this could do more harm than good to the future of the NFL in the UK.
A Logistical Nightmare
Time to state the obvious now: there’s a heck of a time difference between the UK and the US. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to record the late NFL kickoffs because I’ve been falling asleep on the sofa before it’s even started! In 2015, all three London games began at 9:30am Eastern Time. The NFL is first and foremost a business, and the broadcasting rights are so important. It wouldn’t be easy to get a time organised that benefits fans in both the UK and the US whilst also providing broadcasters with a time that will allow the highest possible viewership.
The time difference and length of journey across the Atlantic would also take its toll on the players and staff. With player safety becoming a greater concern each year, it is important that they get enough rest and recovery between matches. At this moment, a team who visits the UK has had its bye week arranged for the very next week to give them time to recover. The only way this could be done with a UK-based franchise (without expanding the season length and adding more bye weeks) would be for them to have all their home games, their bye week, then all away games, or vice versa; but then this would require a base in the UK for the team when they are on the UK stage of their tour.
There is also the necessity to find a stadium to call home. All NFL stadia have a capacity of at least 60,000. There are currently only 8 rugby/football stadia in the UK with a capacity that high, most of these belonging to national sports teams. A ground share could be possible in the short-term, but a new stadium would be all but essential in the long-term. That won’t come cheap.
The Best Option?
It would be an expensive gamble for an owner to uproot a franchise from their current US market to move over to the UK. There is the possibility of a huge reward, but also a very large and expensive risk attached. This has all been under the assumption that a UK team would mean one of the 32 current franchises being relocated. The NFL could always decide to expand and have the UK become the home of one of the new teams, but this would be very expensive for the NFL as they would then need to look at possibly amending the league structure, including the length of season.
I think that it would be more beneficial to keep the NFL International Series coming to the UK rather than setting up a UK franchise. A couple of matches each year allows fans to see this as more of an event, while also allowing a number of stadia to be used depending on availability. So far all of the UK matches have been based in London, but I would be very interested to see a game at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, especially under a closed roof. Should the matches continue to be well received, I think it would then be good to look at the UK for games that can use a neutral stadium, such as the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl.
If the NFL are indeed planning to expand to the UK and beyond, maybe it would be better to look at a way that NFL Europe or an equivalent could work. Having a number of teams based over the continent could allow for a developmental league, with each team being affiliated to a number of US franchises. This can surely benefit players on the fringe of the current NFL rosters to get regular game-time against decent level opposition. Players who have all the intangibles like Jarryd Hayne could use this to learn the ins and outs of the game if transitioning from another sport and players who through poor form/injury are now struggling to make an NFL roster could use this as a proving ground to show they are still capable of leading an NFL franchise to the playoffs.
But the important thing is that this is just my personal opinion. I would love to hear your views on the matter. Would you support a UK-based franchise? Do you think it is feasible? Or would you suggest another option for the NFL that you think would be better?