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Last Sunday Wembley stadium in London, England played host to its sixth Regular Season game as the New England Patriots blowout the St Louis Rams, 45-7. Although mentions of a potential franchise being based in the UK were tentatively whispered back in 2007, those whispers are now being echoed by some of the most prominent figures in the sport.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft is one of the most outspoken persons on the issue, claiming “it’s time for you [UK] to have your own NFL franchise”, based in London and cited the way London handled the recent Olympics as proof that the city could host a permanent franchise.
The NFL has also taken significant steps towards finding out if a permanent franchise would be viable in the UK. By securing the Jacksonville Jaguars to repeated appearances from 2013 through 2016 at Wembley, the league will be able to evaluate whether or not a fan base can be built to a level that would sustain a franchise. They have also arranged a second Regular Season fixture in 2013 to be played in London, when the Minnesota Vikings will host the Pittsburgh Steelers. As well as rewarding UK-based NFL fans with an extra game, it will also go a long way to finding out if the consistent sell outs of Wembley are due to novelty, or if it can occur on a more regular basis.
Whilst things are progressing as well as could be expected in regards to the NFL’s international ambitions, there are a number of obstacles which first need to be tackled. League commissioner Roger Goodell has put his weight behind growing the game in the UK over other potential markets such as Germany and Mexico, but feels that the sport needs to be in the top five viewed sports before a franchise could be considered. Given the congested sports market in the UK, American Football will first need to overcome the likes of golf and motorsport, before it sits amongst the national sports of soccer, rugby union and cricket.
Another potential problem is logistics. The distance, and time required, to travel to and from London 16 times a year, not to mention preseason or possible playoff appearances, would certainly be an issue for some teams and owners. It is, however, not an unthinkable proposition. There is not a large difference in distance between London and the NFL teams based on the East Coast than there is between East Coast and West Coast based teams. The Patriots also proved last week that a team can fly into London on the Friday, perform to a high level on the Sunday, and be back at their training facility by the Monday.
Concerns have also been raised over the desire college players would have of joining an overseas based franchise in the NFL Draft, the primary resource NFL teams have for acquiring new players. Whilst this may limit a London-based franchises pool of players to select from, it is not a death sentence to the prospect of an overseas franchise. The creation of a London-based team would do miracles for the game at college level in the UK, something which is currently miles behind their American counterparts, and thus create a larger pool of players who would be willing to play in the UK. In addition to this, London would likely be a desirable location for free agents, as the city could likely rival anything that a New York or Chicago for example, could offer.
For arguably the first time since the inception of the International Series, a franchise in London within 10 years actually seems a realistic option. Many experts have even said that London could likely get a franchise before Los Angeles, given that the infrastructure is already in place, and the huge potential fan base the UK offers if the sports profile can be grown. With television audiences growing swiftly every year in the UK, and the continued success of the International Series, it may be time to start thinking of some potential franchise names. I’m going to put the London Bulldogs on the table.
Image Courtesy : New England Patriots