As much as the NFL would love to have a franchise in London—and it will have its wish at some point—it won't go off without a hitch as the NFL might hope. The NFL might think it's as easy as one-two-three:
Step 1: Build a fanbase.
Step 2: Get a team to move to London.
Step 3: Success!
Nothing exists in a vacuum, and there's an NFL player-sized elephant lingering in that perfect little bubble the league has created for itself and its new franchise.
Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth poked a gaping hole in that bubble when he discussed what his reaction would be, were he to end up on a team that plays its home games in London.
"I would hope that I was financially able to quit," Whitworth told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's what I would hope because if I was, my papers would be the first one in."
Apparently, Whitworth isn't alone, either—and as the Bengals' representative for the NFL Players Association, he would know.
"I don't see that a lot of guys would want to do that," he said. "I don't see any players that would enjoy that. Sure, you may find a handful of guys that say, 'Oh hey, that'd be cool,' but the rest of them wouldn't."
It's hard to blame him or any other NFL player for being skeptical.
Geography plays a big role in why some players choose to sign with certain teams. Forget the overseas element for a minute. Some NFL franchises in the United States have a hard time attracting free agents based on location, so how would a player feel about picking up and going across the pond?
Take the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings, for example. The Bills have struggled to attract free agents for years, and they've had to overpay players in the past just to get them to consider Buffalo. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace reportedly turned down a bigger contract from the Vikings to take his talents to South Beach.
The elements of weather play into the situation for both clubs, but there's one element a team in London would have to deal with all year long: a wacky schedule with limited routine.
It takes over seven hours to fly from the East Coast to London, with a four-hour change in time zone. For a West Coast team, that flight would be roughly 12 hours with seven hours of jet lag.
Now, imagine a team of 46 players on an active game day roster making the transatlantic flight back-and-forth in a two-week span to play one road game and one home game, and trekking from one continent to another a possible eight times in a four-month span. That immediately puts those players at a huge disadvantage.
According to WebMD, most people recover from jet lag three to four days after a flight. By that point, an NFL team would be over halfway into their preparations for the next game.
Then, imagine that London team playing a Thursday night game, and they could still be yawning when the ball is snapped at game time.
That sounds like a raw deal.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made it clear on his team's trip to London last year that his main goal on the trip was to stay as close to the normal routine as possible. Players and coaches love having a routine, and a franchise in London is just another monkey wrench to throw the routine out of whack. He said, via WEEI.com:
We have normal weeks, we have short weeks, we have travel weeks, we have home weeks, but I think you always try to get to Saturday, Sunday or the day of the game, day before the game, you try to have consistency at that point in the week. Sometimes, you have to modify or adjust what happens before that. When you get to game day, you want that to be a fairly consistent routine that the players and the coaches and the organization are comfortable with. Hopefully the day before that, your final preparations are consistent as well. That’s I think the most important part of it.
...Like I said, we’ve played on four-day weeks, three-day weeks, two weeks, 10 days, but in the end it’s the final lead-up to the game that I think is the most important part of the consistency of the week.
Playing in London is a nightmare for a coach like Belichick, who puts so much stock in a good week of preparation and adherence to routine.
Belichick also pointed out that the NFL right now seems like more of a novelty item than one the people of London are genuinely interested in.
"It's not really a football crowd," he said, via Henry Hodgson of NFL.com. "It's random. If I'm talking to somebody and you hear the crowd go crazy, you think something has happened, but that's their cheer or their chant or whatever it is."
With yearlong hype for one game a year, of course Wembley Stadium has nearly sold out each year it's hosted an NFL game.
Try sustaining that success, and then what happens? You don't even have to look more than a few years in the rearview mirror to see the implosion of NFL Europe for a perfect example: The league failed to produce the players and profits necessary.
At least one fan in London agrees.
The interest may be growing, but would folks from the UK immediately "buy in" as fans of a London team if they are already loyal fans to established NFL franchises?
For years, we've heard about the advancements in fan interest that the NFL is making overseas. Alistair Kirkwood, head of the NFL's UK office, says that the television audience for NFL games has tripled since 2007 but admits there's a long way to go before an NFL franchise is based in London.
"We would probably need to triple our fan base from where we are," Kirkwood said, via Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. "But next year we will go to the equivalent of a quarter of a regular-season [home] schedule. So although two games doesn’t sound a lot, that’s us coming a really long way from where we were starting 2007."
Once the NFL has established a fanbase, though, will it continue to be interested if the London team loses year after year?
What about players? Would they be willing to accept the wholesale life changes necessary to play overseas to join a team that is struggling?
On top of the change in routine and the tenuous popularity of American football in Europe, players must consider whether they want to uproot their families to another country. They would have to integrate their children (assuming they have children) into a new school system, their spouses (assuming they have a spouse) would have to find new work, and they'd be well out of reach of relatives and friends.
Even the food is different, and while that may not seem like a big deal to you and me, a 300-pound offensive lineman might feel a little differently.
There may well be enough fan interest in London to justify its own franchise down the road—even if the NFL's last foray into playing football in Europe was a failure—but even with that, fan interest does not make a successful franchise. That's what the players do.
Regardless of fan interest, player interest may be equally as important, if not more so, for the NFL to successfully build and sustain a franchise in London.
If players don't want to go to London on a full-time basis, this project is finished before it has really even started.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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