Is the NFL Wasting Its Money Trying to Expand Internationally?
Could the NFL, the king of American sport, ever expand beyond U.S. borders? Commissioner Roger Goodell told the Chicago Sun-Times the answer is a definite "maybe." But can the NFL really become a success and be profitable overseas?
It's no secret the NFL is looking to aggressively grow the game. Given the way NFL ticket revenues have flattened, and TV revenue couldn't get much higher, the NFL might be close to saturating the U.S. market. If they want to achieve their stated revenue goal of $25 billion by 2027, the NFL is going to have to invest in the international market.
But will that investment bear fruit?
Building a Market
The advent of digital HDTV means fans all over the world can watch NFL games, live, in their original quality. Further, the rise of the Internet as a source for sports information gives English speakers all over the world the access to the same up-to-the-minute news, stats and analysis American fans enjoy.
Were the Rams right to give up three home games to play in London?
But there's nothing that infuses passion in a fan's heart like seeing a game live.
The selection of games broadcasted by Sky TV in the UK have inspired little fanbases for every team, but at the rate of one game a year, it would take the NFL at least 16 years to get every team into Wembley. As Goodell said, the next step is to have multiple games in London every year...and to ensure one team plays in London multiple years.
The latter part has already happened; it'll happen again as the St. Louis Rams have agreed to play in London each of the next three seasons. This will allow a consistent fanbase, a solid market for the Rams to build up in England—just in time, perhaps, for the Rams to become a little more high profile...
Changing the Game
The NFL will not be able to expand into Europe without significantly changing the league itself. Whether that's as low impact as moving the Rams back to Los Angeles, or something more drastic, remains to be seen.
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Transatlantic travel is nothing to be trifled with, in terms of expense or difficulty. Asking teams to simply bear that cost is a hard sell. For now, the jet lag is partially offset by making the trip after a bye week, but the NFL couldn't schedule eight home opponents for the London Monarchs (?) who were all coming off the bye.
The solution? It may be moving to an 18-game schedule with two bye weeks. That would provide a big enough window, and enough teams available coming off (or headed into) a bye that the schedule could be reconfigured enough.
But one European franchise may not do the trick. With 32 NFL teams split into two conferences of 16 and eight divisions of four, everything works out perfectly. Expanding by one makes no sense; it'd unbalance the whole league.
The London team would be the odd duck in everything. Players would either be desperate to play in London or want nothing to do with it. Some would flock to the opportunity, but many would run screaming in the other direction.
If the NFL really wants to do it right, they'll add two international divisions: an "NFC Europe," with four European teams, and an "AFC Americas," with four teams on this side of the globe (perhaps two Mexican and two Canadian teams?). This will greatly reduce the travel burden on any of the individual expansion teams, and the travel burden for the existing teams will be carried by division rotation.
Worth the Trouble?
All of these changes are fraught with problems. Moving a franchise is rife with issues, and there's nothing to say the Rams will be any more popular internationally by being based in L.A. instead of STL. Adding one (or four, or eight) teams to the league would make scheduling difficult (and how would the playoffs be handled?).
It would be nearly impossible for a London franchise to smoothly integrate with the rest of the league. The 4 p.m. transaction deadline would hit at 10 p.m. If they hosted Monday Night Football, it'd have to be at 4 a.m. London time, or 2 in the afternoon on the U.S. East Coast.
The 18-game schedule poses its own set of problems. As Ashley Fox of ESPN.com wrote, Goodell and the league's hankering for the increased TV money of an 18-game schedule make them nearly the only ones hankering for the switch. If nothing else, increasing the number of games played will risk players' health, right as the league is trying to convince everyone that is their top priority.
Take a Lesson from the English Premier League
There's an obvious model for the NFL to follow: the one taken by the English Premier League. All of the modern advances that allow UK and European fans to follow the NFL like natives work in the other direction, too.
Soccer's popularity in America is exploding, and the EPL is not only the world's (wait for it) premier soccer league, the games can be piped live, in English, in HD, to all of our TVs and smartphones. Just like UK fans can pick an NFL team to follow, many Americans pick an English side they can claim as their own.
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Several NFL owners also own EPL teams: the Rams' Stan Kroenke is a majority owner of Arsenal, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Glazer family has controlling interest in Manchester United, and the Cleveland Browns' Randy Lerner is the majority shareholder of Aston Villa. Yet, none of them are talking about moving an EPL franchise stateside.
There's a reason for that: it's not needed. Further, it'd be logistical suicide. The EPL plays a balanced schedule with a home-and-home round robin, and "road trips" within Great Britain still involve the teams sleeping in their own beds. Adding transcontinental flight to the in-season schedule for a single team would be insane.
Even though the NFL covers a range from Boston to Miami to San Diego to Seattle, hopping the pond is a whole different level of distance, jet lag and time-zone problems. To stoke the global fandom flames, EPL teams frequently tour the world as part of preseason exhibitions, and many build massive worldwide followings with only a once-in-a-blue-moon live appearance.
My own adopted side, Liverpool FC, boasts 200 officially registered support groups in dozens of different countries. They have millions of fans in Asia and the Americas, despite only playing a few international exhibitions a year.
American football and world football have an awful lot in common. It only makes sense that as Americans and Europeans are falling in love with each others' games, they do their best to make money off of each other.
But the EPL just earned an absolutely unbelievable $3 billion TV deal, powered partially by the ever-expanding worldwide interest in English soccer. Meanwhile, the NFL is getting one-third of that from DirecTV every year in exchange for the complete slate of NFL games.
If the English can inspire worldwide interest in their national game, without compromising the integrity of their league, the NFL can certainly follow suit.
The author would like to thank B/R Featured Columnist Sam Monson, who lives in Dublin, Ireland and contributed valuable insight and perspective for this piece.
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