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With the NFL International Series going from strength to strength, it seems like the debate surrounding whether or not London should play host to a permanent NFL franchise, has become an annual tradition. As an avid football journalist, who lives just a short commute outside of London, I felt it was about time I threw my two cents’ worth in. Or given the context, perhaps two pennies’ worth is more appropriate.
Is London ready, right now, for an NFL franchise? The short answer is no. The NFL has previously stated that for a franchise to be based in London, whether that be via relocation or expansion, football would need to rank in the UK’s top five most popular sports. Fairly obviously, soccer sits at the top of this list, and any attempts to chase it down would ultimately prove unsuccessful. Trust me, as a lifelong rugby fan; I know the futility of hoping for this. Beneath soccer come the equally traditional British sports of rugby and cricket, and matching these sports for popularity must surely be amongst the long-term goals of the NFL. In the short term however, displacing tennis and golf, the fourth and fifth ranked sports, remains a realistic goal, especially with football now represented well on both satellite and terrestrial television in the UK.
The fan base has also been a factor which has been questioned in the past, whether that be because of its size, football knowledge, or dedication to the sport. These are all now issues which are slowly beginning to subside. The NFL’s senior vice president of international, Chris Parsons, stated that the UK’s NFL fan base has doubled in the last four years, and that he expects it to double again in the next four, and when you consider that negotiations are reportedly ongoing to host three regular season games at Wembley next season, the chances of that growth being accelerated are considerable. The days of an uneducated British crowd cheering a mediocre punt, or remaining silent when a team gives up a safety, are long gone, and what remains is a dedicated and passionate fan base. These are fans who watch every game available to them, fork out extra cash for NFL GamePass (the UK equivalent of NFL Sunday Ticket), and forego sleep to take in primetime clashes on a Monday or Thursday night. In short, not only is the UK fan base growing, but it’s also pretty hardcore.
Then there’s the word every UK NFL fan hates to hear in regards to this debate – logistics. Sometimes this issue feels overblown; after all, a flight from the East coast to London would take no more time than it would for the Miami Dolphins to fly up to Seattle for example. Bye weeks could also be structured so that teams playing away in London do so prior to their bye, and the London team itself could play two or three road games in a stretch, particularly if they are playing on the West coast, negating their need to fly back to the UK in between games. Related to this, is the question of which division would the London franchise play in? The obvious choice would be a division with teams based on, or close to, the East coast, and at my reckoning, this leaves you with the AFC East, AFC North, NFC East, and at a push, the NFC South. As a football fan first, and a supporter of a London franchise second, I can’t say I’d be too keen on altering any of these divisions, which are home to some of the greatest rivalries in the league.
A nearly non-existent college game is also often levied against a potential UK franchise, and unfortunately this is something which is not likely to change. This has nothing to do with a lack of interest in football, but rather a cultural issue, as sport at the university level in the UK is given nowhere near the coverage and funding that is in the US. This is because the leading sports in the UK (soccer, rugby, cricket) tend to recruit most of their players in their mid-teens, and train them at their own academies whilst they wait for them to finish their high school education, and then move them directly into professional sports. Essentially if you’re 18 and off to college in the UK, your dreams of playing professional sport are slim to none. That, however, has not stopped the likes of Menelik Watson and Jack Crawford from making it to the NFL, and a London franchise would only increase high school participation in the sport in the UK, giving the NCAA a brand new feeding ground from which to pluck talent. College scouts would also have a field day scouring high school rugby teams in the UK, and potentially unearth diamonds in the rough like Lawrence Okoye (who played rugby prior to entering athletics).
Ultimately however, the deciding factor lies with the cash generating ability of a London franchise. Essentially a London franchise, if handled properly, would be a license for the NFL to print money. Let’s not forget, Europe is pretty small geographically, and although you would be putting a franchise in London, fans from other NFL hungry countries such as Germany, and much of Scandinavia, are just a short flight away, and would in fact find getting to London hardly more time consuming than someone travelling down from the North of the UK. If the fan base continues to grow as expected, and the franchise was to be located initially at the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium, then there is no doubt in my mind that it would provide a very nice revenue stream for the NFL.
I understand many of the objections from US fans about an overseas franchise, it is, after all, the National Football League, but the amount of positives that could come out of this move far outweigh the negatives, albeit in my slightly biased opinion. The famous quote goes ‘if you’re not growing, you’re dying’, and there is certainly a case to be made that the NFL is approaching saturation point within the US, with the exception of the still vacant Los Angeles. On a brief aside, I do find it almost incomprehensible that London could get a franchise before LA, but as a Londoner, I won’t argue this case too vehemently. If London plays host to three regular season games next year, and can sell them out as quickly as they did this year (both games this year were sold out in two hours), the NFL’s experiment in London could quickly gather pace. Many of the owners seem to be behind the idea, whilst none have come out and openly criticized it, and if in five years time Wembley is playing host to five or six regular season games, all of which it’s selling out, then there is no reason to believe London wouldn’t be an excellent home to the NFL’s first overseas franchise.
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