This October the NFL’s ‘International Series’ will return to London for the sixth consecutive year when the St Louis Rams will take on the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium. The Rams have already signed up for games in 2013 and 2014. NFL owners have also approved games to be played in the UK through 2016 fueling talk of London being a future permanent destination for an NFL team.
Playing one or even two games a year in London is one thing but placing an NFL franchise in the UK permanently is another prospect altogether and could present a whole host of problems.
The idea however does have its supporters, including the current owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft.
Whilst on a recent promotional trip to London Kraft was quoted as saying,
“I personally think we should have a franchise in London and that is something I am going to push for,” Kraft told Neil Reynolds of Sky Sports. “I think I said that the last time we were over here in 2009 and before this next decade is out, I hope we have a team here. I think that would be right for the NFL and this fan base has proven they deserve it’’
There are many factors for the NFL to overcome first such as logistics, sustained fan interest, television rights and time difference to name just a few.
Currently the league has a few things in place to make the trip across the pond as easy as possible for the visiting teams. Both the Rams and the Patriots will play a home game the week before and have their bye week the week after, a format that has been in place since its inception five years ago.
The problem here is that one game in London a year would turn into eight and therefore some clever planning may be needed for the teams coming over. A home game before hand could be achievable but it would be impossible for the visiting team to have a bye week to follow for all eight games. This would put those teams at a slight disadvantage and would mean that they’d need to play a home game the week after to minimise travel.
We haven’t even begun to consider what it would mean for the team based in London. They would have eight trips stateside during the regular season. Flight times vary from eight to eleven hours depending on travel to the east or west coast. Then throw in time difference, which is up to eight hours for the west coast. It would be impossible for them to have a bye week after every road trip.
It seems that NFL fans agree that the travelling is a big factor in all of this. Candy Johnson who is an Atlanta Falcons fan from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is one,
“I think it would be extremely hard on the teams traveling to play there and even more so for the home team to travel for all the road games. It seems a bit much to me”
In 2009 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Patriots at Wembley in front of some 84,000 fans. However in 2011 the Buccaneers were back but only 76,000 saw them lose to the Chicago Bears, a drop of 8,000 in just two years. Have fans seen enough of the Buccaneers already, a team that is a little short on star players perhaps the reason?
Does this mean that fans are already picking and choosing games despite only having one game a year to choose from? Not so according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who claimed that last years lockout meant tickets went on sale later than usual.
“We started late,” Goodell said. “But we’re thrilled with our ticket sales. We obviously love to sell as many as we have”
Despite the drop in attendance Robert Kraft seems un-perturbed and wants to expand the International Series, saying,
“Having seen the kind of support we have received here in London, it is the intention of the NFL owners to get two games here, starting next year.” (2013)
Judging by Goodell’s comments below he certainly seems to share the optimism shown by Kraft.
“We want to bring our game to continental Europe. The issue is, we want to make a success out of it in the U.K.,” he said. “We think this (London) has got all of the basics that we need to be successful. It’s got an advanced fan base, a strong media market, a great stadium. We have a long history here. So all those things contribute, let’s make it work. And if we can be successful here, then we can take that model, potentially, to continental Europe.”
But are Goodell and Kraft looking at the bigger picture? Having established NFL teams play in London once or even twice a year is one thing but do fans really want a team based here permanently?
Darren Roberts, a longtime NFL and New York Jets fan from London said,
“It’s a bad idea as I don’t think most fans would support a London team as they already have a team. The only positive I can see is that it would be easier to watch my own team”
Melissa Rubin a Baltimore Ravens fan from Washington DC is also against the idea,
“No, Football is an American sport & should not be expanded to Europe. The added travel time & cost for teams would also work against it”
Darren Fleming from Surrey has supported the Miami Dolphins for over 20 years, he says,
“You can never take the Dolphins out of me. I think it will be a good idea but could be hard to compete with the American teams”
If fans stop buying tickets for the International series the league can simply pull the idea from the calendar, but if ticket sales drop for a team stationed in London that would present a much larger problem for the NFL to clean up.
Another issue to resolve would be the handling of Television rights. The NFL games are the most lucrative and expensive rights of any American sport. Late last year American networks CBS, Fox and NBC renewed their contracts for nine years through the 2022 season. That will take the total revenue from them from the current $1.93 billion per year to $3.1 billion by 2022. Earlier this season, the NFL and ESPN reached an eight-year extension to keep “Monday Night Football” on the cable channel through the 2021 season, increasing the rights fee from $1.1 to 1.9 billion annually.
Big Business indeed, but a team in another continent brings more television networks into the equation. Would a UK television network have the rights to a UK based team? It’s not just the issue of rights and networks to resolve, the time difference between the two Countries could again become a factor.
The UK is 5 hours ahead of the east coast of America, the east coast being the time zone by which the television networks and the NFL use. Currently the Sunday and Monday night nationally televised game; the ‘primetime’ game kicks off at 8.30pm eastern time. That’s 1.30am in the UK. That puts the primetime game somewhat out of the question for a UK based team.
The NFL will need to overcome these factors and more before they place a team in London on a permanent basis. I wonder if this is a venture that will never really get off the ground as it seems to raise more questions than answers. It seems Messer’s Kraft and Goodell have a few things to iron out before they can make their wish a reality.