Every Autumn since 2007, Wembley stadium in London has played host to the NFL’s International Series—a regular season game played between two NFL franchises in front of nearly 84,000 people.
The yearly game, dreamt up by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, has been a resounding success; each game has been a sell-out and has continued to raise awareness and popularity of the sport this side of the Atlantic.
With the Minnesota Vikings announcing their intentions to also play a game in London next season, Wembley will host two games in the 2013-14 season—Vikings against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Jacksonville Jaguars versus the San Francisco 49ers.
Such news is great for both the league and the franchise owners. The apparent popularity of American Football in Britain is opening up new avenues for both parties to potentially expand American Football into the realms of worldwide popularity.
The league has seen that the NFL has been largely accepted by the British people as evidenced by the continuous sell-outs for the International Series and a 154 percent rise in viewing figures for NFL games on British television channels since 2006.
The next logical step therefore in the international expansion of the NFL is to have an NFL franchise in London.
The notion of an American Football team in the English capital has been prevalent for a few years now. Almost immediately after the announcement of the continuation of London’s annual game, there were whispers of potentially having a team based in the UK. Six years on, these whispers have now grown into almost full scale demands with many of the league’s 32 franchise owners expressing their desire to have a team abroad to raise international awareness for the game.
But is all of this realistic?
Currently the NFL has an effective system with 32 teams split into eight divisions with four teams in each, all assigned by their geographical location. This system means adding an expansion franchise in London one would bring the League to 33 teams, making it extremely impractical to reshuffle how the NFL works. Standings, fixtures in terms of who-plays-who-and-when, and the scheduling of games would all have to be completely overhauled to accommodate an extra team.
Also, which NFL team, all of whom have large, existing fan bases will be the one to switch continents? NFL franchises are very important to their local economies and a source of pride to a state, city or community. It’s extremely unlikely that anybody would voluntarily decide to relocate from such a comfortable position where income is nearly continuous through ticket sales and merchandise to a largely untested market in London where the people are mainly enamoured with football (soccer).
And how will British fans take to having a NFL team permanently based in the capital? The odd game (or two from 2013) has proven to be a draw but will that carry over to consistently filling an 80,000+ seat stadium for 8 home games a season? The current sample size of 5 games in 5 years is too small to be able to make accurate predictions on a London franchise’s popularity. What happens when support dries up and the only international team in the NFL are struggling to fill half their stadium?
The game-breaker in all this is how unfeasible it would be to actually carry out a season with a London franchise. Fancy private airlines or not, London is at least a five or six hour journey away from much of the Eastern seaboard. With NFL teams playing 16 games each season (8 home, 8 away) all around America, this would mean a lot of travelling across the Atlantic for not only the London team but their opponents as well. Realistically, we could see the London based team or their rivals having to travel for close to 10 or 11 hours the day before a game (games are usually played on a Sunday afternoon) across the world to play before flying home back to their team headquarters the following night. Not only is it impractical, it also puts certain teams at a distinct disadvantage against their opponents if they’ve been travelling for close to 24 hours over the past week.
It’s a unique time in NFL history. The game is as popular as ever in the U.S. with a record breaking 111.3 million people earlier in the year watching the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLVI. With its popularity also growing on a global scale with the success of games played abroad, the NFL, for the first time, has the means and ability to expand the game to a global audience with the introduction of a franchise outside of North America. But is the idea of a London-based franchise realistic and feasible or is it another madcap idea from the people who thinks it’s the right choice to fine people for celebrating touchdowns?
Lewis Hughes is a British citizen and aspiring journalist. Follow him on Twitter @lah_8