It’s been a decade since the NFL staged a New York Giants-Miami Dolphins regular-season game in London, the first played outside North America. It was a bold experiment that has proven an overwhelming success.
A record four games will be held there this season, beginning with Sunday’s clash between Baltimore (2-0) and Jacksonville (1-1) in what is expected to be another sold-out Wembley Stadium. The game will be streamed live back in the United States and internationally on Yahoo Sports.
The NFL believed if it could put its product in Europe that Europeans would learn to love the sport. It has worked.
Yet what remains is the same question: What is the end game? Namely, would the NFL place a full-time franchise in London?
[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]
There is diminishing doubt that it could work financially. Home to a metropolitan population of 13.6 million (slightly larger than Los Angeles) and plenty of corporations, the base is there. Fans continue to flock to the games, even if they are often just general NFL fans and not of a specific team. That doesn’t include extended fans across the United Kingdom or mainland Europe.
Jacksonville, for example, grosses more money on its annual game in Wembley Stadium than it does on a game at EverBank Field in Florida. Wembley is not only bigger (83,000 compared to 61,000) but it always sells out and demands a higher average price ($130 compared to $86).
“That one game is almost 20 percent of our revenue,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan told Yahoo’s Eric Adelson. “You have 80,000 tickets paying a higher price.”
Next year, Tottenham Hotspur, a soccer club in the English Premier League, will open a new, state-of-the-art stadium in North London that includes NFL specifics, particularly a locker room for a football roster (Wembley is built for far smaller soccer teams). The NFL has already signed a 10-year deal to play at least two games there annually. If a franchise is coming, this is probably where it would go.
Yet it’s more than just having a stadium full of fans, or good television ratings, or some Fortune 500 companies willing to buy luxury boxes.
Before answering the question of whether staging eight international games in one city makes the most sense for the NFL’s design on global domination, there are logistics to figure out.
“No question the logistical issues remain,” said Mark Lamping, president of the Jaguars, who are scheduled to play annually in London through at least 2020 and are the most-often cited franchise to possibly move.
Lamping said a hypothetical franchise would need to have the NFL set up block scheduling for the regular season (say three weeks at home, three weeks on the road in the States). Then it would need to have a facility in America to use while there.
“Scheduling is a big piece of it,” Lamping said, “and a full-time base of operations in the U.S. in addition to one in London.”
Part of the challenge would be bringing free agents in during the season to replace injured or ineffective players, or fill the ever-revolving practice squad. Travel would be immense. And even if you could plan out an entire season, what happens in the playoffs, when schedule and location can shift on a moment’s notice. What happens, for instance, if at the last minute a West Coast team has to come to London or vice versa?
Getting an entire football team, not to mention all of its gear, to another continent is not easy. Or perhaps even desirable.
That said, Lamping noted that the trips to London have become progressively easier for the Jags. This week, Baltimore and Jacksonville are both leaving the States late Thursday and arriving at Heathrow airport on Friday. Typically, NFL teams travel on Saturday for Sunday games.
“The world is a lot smaller once you realize how easy it is,” said Lamping, who travels to London monthly for work. “Miami to Seattle is a lot longer than New York to London.”
Here’s the thing, though: The world is (relatively) small and the NFL can get all over the place. That includes, for the second consecutive year, a game in Mexico City – a high-profile New England vs. Oakland contest. That makes five NFL games played outside the United States this year. If a franchise were to go to London, that would be eight (one team’s full home slate). Why not look to expand the International Series by three more games and bring the sport to other regions of the globe, rather than go all-in on one city (perhaps at the expense of staging games elsewhere)?
If the league decided to have eight international games a season, then each NFL team would go out of the country about once every two years (the Jags’ annual London deal throws the math off a bit). It could alternate as home and road team, so it would replace one game in its own stadium every four years.
Then the NFL would maintain a heavy presence in London while being able to stage one-off games in Mexico City and perhaps mainland Europe (Berlin, Paris, Madrid); Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the game is popular; and maybe even a season opener in China, which the league has long coveted.
That may be a far better way to grow the game than just adding a single franchise in London.
Consider the case of Sian Shaw, who hails from Sheffield, England. He had his interest piqued in 2007 by that first London game. He later decided to become a Cowboys fan because his mother used to watch the old show “Dallas.” Soon he and his wife, Katrina, were watching all the games, buying team gear and following NFL media.
“We are both totally hooked,” Shaw said.
They attended the 2014 Cowboys game in London and then decided to travel to New York in 2015 to watch Dallas play at the Giants, a chance to get what he called “the ‘real’ experience.” In 2016 they returned for the Cowboys’ visit to Washington and this year are headed to see them play in San Francisco.
“We hope to do one Cowboys game a season and see the United States in the process,” said Shaw, who works in asset finance for the Royal Bank of Scotland.
While he would love a London team, it hardly matters. He’s an NFL fan now no matter what.
The NFL figures there are Sian Shaws to be had all over the world. The ability to place an international game in new markets in different years, or find a hot one and stick, could grow the NFL’s footprint exponentially.
Ten years into trying to export a truly American game, the NFL has to feel good about the experiment. Four more games here this year and one more in Mexico; the International Series is growing and growing.
It may never solve the logistical hurdles of putting a franchise in Europe full-time. It also may not even matter.
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