Roger Goodell is in love with London.
Goodell announced this week that the NFL will play two games across the Atlantic Ocean next season in a decision the NFL commissioner called "a very significant and important step going forward for our fans in the UK, for the NFL in general and for the teams involved."
Goodell specifically referenced growing overseas interest in the sport as a reason to expand the NFL's annual foreign exchange program. Has Goodell heard talk of the UK's love of "football" and convinced himself that means his version?
The NFL press release discussing the expanded London series quoted Goodell as well, with the commissioner suggesting, "We have heard very clearly from our UK fans—they want more football."
While still filling Wembley Stadium to more than nearly every domestic NFL stadium's capacity, the International Series contest between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 was the lowest-attended game since the series began in 2007, an eight-percent drop from the previous season and the second consecutive decrease in game attendance since 2009.
The league press release boasts increased overseas interest in the sport on television, but that's something that could happen without playing any actual games on foreign soil.
The Barclays Premier League and UEFA Champions League are more popular than ever in America, but regular-season matches aren't being exported to the United States to help grow the game more globally. That's what the preseason tours are for—growing the game and grabbing as much cash as the clubs can bring on the plane back home.
The additional London game next season will involve the Minnesota Vikings "hosting" the Pittsburgh Steelers in late September, in advance of the previously scheduled game between the San Francisco 49ers playing "at" the Jacksonville Jaguars in late October.
Vikings fans in Minnesota will lose one game next season, a concession for the "home" team in these gimmicky matchups. While Jacksonville fans may no longer care about losing home games on the schedule, Vikings fans should. Since the Wilf family took over in Minnesota, the Vikings are 58-60 (.491) in all games but 36-23 (.610) at home.
Who cares about home-field advantage when there are new fans to be found and brands to be expanded?
Jacksonville's new owners have actually signed on to play one "home" game in London each year through 2016. Let's see how much Jaguars football fans in the UK are clamoring (sorry, clamouring) for after four years of hosting those games. Forcing the UK audience to root for Jacksonville will surely test how much interest there is in the sport, Mr. Commissioner.
(Note: British fans aren't this dumb and, frankly, the whole International Series seems a bit insulting to their football intelligence. Sending Jacksonville over would be like the EPL sending a team to play regular-season matches in the United States and thinking we'd show up to watch Queens Park Rangers every year. Ooh, but they might play Liverpool or Arsenal, so get your ticket money ready, suckers!)
Let's back up. To be fair, Goodell has one of the toughest jobs in the world. The man presides over the biggest money-making juggernaut in the history of professional sports—an organization that collects more each year from television partnerships than the Gross Domestic Product of 70 countries—yet people like me get to take shots at him for continuing to try to grow the game around the globe.
It's not fair, really.
However (you had to see that coming), Goodell's expansion plan doesn't serve the league's two most important commodities: the players and the dedicated, paying customers. The London project smacks of nothing more than Goodell searching for another way to cement his own self-aggrandizing legacy at the expense of everything else.
With league-wide attendance figures dropping each year since 2007 and player safety issues more scrutinized than ever, Goodell continually tries to ramrod an 18-game schedule into the NFL legislation.
He even tried to get fans on board with his plan during the NFL lockout. (If it's hard to keep track of which lockout that references with multiple NFL work stoppages coming under Goodell's stewardship, the 18-game pitch came during the player lockout, not the recent referee lockout.) Only after both the players and fans rejected the idea of an 18-game schedule—players because their bodies couldn't afford the beating, fans because their wallets couldn't—Goodell backed off to focus on more pressing issues, like getting everyone back to work.
Still, as recently as this September, rumors continued to float that Goodell may use the issue as a negotiating tool. He will try anything to make that 18-game square peg fit into our collective round hole, even if he has to force it in there himself, owner by billionaire owner, player by millionaire player, fan by cash-strapped fan.
Until Goodell can get his 18-game schedule approved, he has been forced to figure out additional ways to increase revenue for the league. One has been the expansion of Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network, something fans are enjoying more than the players or coaches.
The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't take much pleasure in their most recent Thursday night experience, having to travel to Tennessee (and losing) after a hard-fought game against Philadelphia just four days earlier. For a team struggling with injuries, Pittsburgh had a midweek game at exactly the wrong time, if there is ever a good time for playing an NFL contest on three days' rest.
If you think Pittsburgh had it hard, the Baltimore Ravens started the 2012 season by playing four times in 17 days. Sure, the exposure of three prime-time games is good for marketing and merchandising (and the owners' bottom line), but what does scheduling four games in just over two weeks' time say to Baltimore—to all teams—about the league's real priorities on player health and safety?
Maybe the commissioner can ban a few more players until they sue him so he can remind us how much he truly cares about their well-being.
Under Goodell's direction, the NFL has rarely been about the players. It certainly hasn't been about the fans, no matter how many letters the commissioner sends out to express how awesome we are or to tell us how much better we deserve when replacement referees give his league a black eye. It has never really been about us, though.
It's about the money. It's about Goodell's legacy, which is tied it to—you guessed it—the money.
It should be seen as a noble effort to want to grow the game of American football to other nations. Goodell should be commended for constantly looking after the game's future, but now isn't the time. Goodell needs to spend more time focusing on the fans he already has before trying to recruit new ones to replace those of us the league's struggling teams risk losing year after year.
Rather than fixing the problems with the stadium experience by lowering costs and giving families an affordable way to see a game in person, Goodell wants to make season-ticket holders shell out even more money for regular-season games (even if they already pay for the preseason games as part of a season-ticket plan, the parking and concessions for actually showing up to those two extra games could break the bank for a lot of people in struggling times).
Goodell wants more games in prime time for better television audiences, even if that provides fewer opportunities for younger fans to go to games.
And if the product on the field—or TV blackouts—can't entice fans in struggling cities to show up, Goodell will just find another stadium somewhere around the world to host those games. The owners would be crazy not to approve global expansion, as more growth means more exposure, which means more money.
Maybe Goodell could make the Jaguars the NFL's first global barnstorming team, playing all 16 (or 18) games in different cities around the world. Imagine the exposure and revenue! If there is a lot of interest, and even if interest levels off or declines after five years, Goodell could add a second team, too. As long as one of them plays Pittsburgh or New England almost every week, it's sure to work!
In all seriousness, with the talk of future Super Bowl sites a hot topic this week (congratulations to South Florida and San Francisco, by the way), how long before Commissioner Goodell tries to get the game played in London? Will that come before or after Jacksonville makes the big game? Would that be a home game for the Jaguars?
The London Super Bowl idea has been floated before, but now that Wembley Stadium will be hosting two meaningful regular-season games with plans for more and more down the road, it can't be long before Goodell formally entertains the UK getting the biggest game of the year.
What will American fans think of that? Or will the domestic fans even matter by then?
I admit that I'm probably making more out of this decision to expand the International Series than it warrants, but there is a bigger issue at hand and far more than a few transcontinental flights at stake.
The question isn't just about how many games Goodell will put in London, it's how much power the commissioner has over the future of his sport, all in a selfish effort to leave his mark on the game.
By no fault of the players, Goodell's brand of NFL football is becoming increasingly more distant from the core group of fans who made the game as popular as it is. Goodell has been too focused on increasing the bottom line for his owners and securing his own legacy to focus on those who deserve his attention the most.
I wonder what kind of legacy that would leave.
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