After another two sell-out matches at Wembley, momentum is growing for a permanent NFL team in London.
The league is keen: a fan base in the UK would open up a new market, generating revenue from tickets, merchandise and broadcasting rights. George Osborne, the British chancellor, wants one too. This week a report by Deloitte said such a team would boost the UK economy by over £100 million ($160 million) a year. And so does Wembley itself. Crowds for England soccer matches have slid since the team’s dismal performance at the 2014 World Cup, and, despite regular pop concerts, Wembley is unused for most days in the year.
But there are several big, and possibly insurmountable, problems in bringing football to London. First is the tyranny of distance. London is 5,300 km away from the home of the nearest NFL team, the New England Patriots. An away game at the San Diego Chargers would require a round trip of around 17,000 km. Teams play a minimum of 16 games in a season, which means a minimum of eight trips to the US. Although the International Federation of Sports Medicine says there is “no consistent or compelling scientific evidence showing that either air travel across multiple time zones or jet lag symptoms causes a reduction in sport performance,” it is easy to believe that athletes would be mentally, if not physically, drained from regular long-haul travel. Merely the time spent in the air (and readjusting body clocks) would cut into the hours available for training and preparation.
Currently, London hosts several league games in the regular season (known as the International Series). These teams are granted a week off afterwards to recover. If this principle was applied to London and its opponents, it would require lengthening the season by weeks. It has already been proposed that a London team could play several away fixtures in a row, but this seems rather self-defeating. What’s the point of a London franchise if it spends several months of the season back in the US? And if London ever made the playoffs, the schedulers would truly be up against it.
Next is the difficulty of attracting players. It would take a brave and entrepreneurial footballer to move from the US, where football rituals are part of the fabric of every weekend, to practice their trade in a distant outpost where most greet the sport with a shrug. Players would also face handing over a larger share of their earnings in taxes, owing to the more onerous tax regime in the UK. Almost certainly, London would need an exemption from the league’s salary cap in order to assemble a competitive team. Upsetting the league’s competitive balance in order to hunt for revenue in new markets would set a dangerous precedent for the NFL’s future.
This new revenue requires dedicated fans to provide it. The NFL has shown that it can sell out Wembley for three one-off games featuring six different teams each season. That is not the same as attracting 80,000 fans for eight matches played by the same team. Match-starved NFL fans may pay £80 ($128) once a season to watch anyone. That doesn’t mean they would pay £640 ($1,024) a year to watch a London franchise. One British fan, who watched the Jacksonville Jaguars play the San Francisco 49ers at Wembley in 2013 noted: “An effort was made to make it feel like a home game for the Jaguars, with flags left on each seat, but people turned up in different team colors from across America.”
And then there is the identity of the team itself. Either one of the existing teams could be shelved and replaced in the league by London, or a struggling franchise could relocate to make London its home. Certainly, NFL franchises have been ready travelers. In the past 20 years, two teams from Los Angeles, the Raiders and the Rams, have moved to Oakland and St Louis respectively, while the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans. But none of these moves would be as wrenching as a shipping a team across the Atlantic. The rewards for doing so could be significant. 80,000 fans paying £100 ($160) a ticket means big money over a season. But the risks to NFL’s integrity, and the logistical problems in keeping the team competitive, are bigger still.