How Can the NFL Realistically Expand to Europe?
As an American citizen, Roger Goodell can't accept the noble title of "King." As the appointed ruler of the NFL, though, Commissioner Goodell eventually gets everything he wants.
He wants an NFL franchise in London.
"It’s going to be London’s team," Goodell told an NYU conference, per the New York Post's Bart Hubbuch. "It’ll be the London Whatevers playing the New York Giants. The logistics we can work out."
The royal subjects of Queen Elizabeth II had better start saving their quid for PSLs, because the London Whatevers are coming:
The English Logistics
The logistics that the NFL must "work out" are daunting.
For starters, where will they play?
Wembley Stadium, England's national stadium, is too heavily used to be the permanent home of an NFL franchise. Even if the schedule could be massaged, Wembley seats 90,000 people. The Whatevers would have to be a massive draw to avoid playing every game in front of an embarrassingly empty house—as the old London Monarchs did in the days of NFL Europe.
London's Olympic Stadium might have been a perfect fit, but English Premier League soccer team West Ham United just signed a 99-year lease on it. Not only will West Ham be modifying the stadium to suit their needs, they'll be using it on fall Sundays for, you know, soccer.
Soccer poses another question: When will the games be played?
American fans of the EPL know the pain of getting up at dawn to watch what for Britons are early-afternoon matches. If the London Whatevers are hosting the New York Giants at 1 p.m. London time, New Yorkers will have to watch the game at 8 a.m.—and likely not at a bar or restaurant with their friends.
The EPL staggers its games much like the NFL does, too, with early games, a late game or two and prime-time games on Sunday and Monday nights. With no college ball to contend with, the EPL also has a slate of Saturday games, and English soccer teams often play mid-week in tournaments like the FA Cup.
Even if the NFL could find a time not to compete head-to-head with soccer, could it find a day?
Timing has a huge impact on the most important piece of all: TV rights. The point of a London franchise is to bring in more revenue. How will the NFL schedule games so it can ask top dollar from both U.K. and U.S. broadcasting networks?
There's also the tricky matter of immigration.
Some front office and team staff will have to be local, of course, and it's possible that the ownership will be too. Still, the entire coaching staff and roster will have to be cleared for work in the United Kingdom.
In soccer, the rules for a foreign player to be granted a work permit are very strict. Per U.K. sports law blog Full Contact Law, a player has to be selected for 75 percent of their country's national team games and come from a country that averages at least 70th in the FIFA world rankings.
While there are international football tournaments sanctioned by the International Federation of American Football, top professional players aren't involved. Further, some NFL players have troubled pasts (or presents); they may not be eligible to emigrate, or even obtain an American passport. English immigration law will have to change to allow NFL players to come and work in the U.K.
Then there are tax issues.
American law allows the NFL itself as a tax-free non-profit, and most teams have a sweetheart deal with their host cities, counties or states. Players have to withhold and file taxes for every place they play a road game in. How will the NFL, its teams, their staffs and their players all handle regularly paying taxes to two—or, including Canadian Buffalo Bills games, three—different nations?
No matter how the NFL places a franchise in London, all of the above problems will have to be worked out. More and more games will be played in London, and don't be surprised if some of the league's top events (Pro Bowl, Super Bowl, NFL draft) take a turn being hosted there as well.
When you control a $10 billion empire that wants to become a $25 billion empire by 2027, as Goodell does, major barriers like international laws become minor hurdles.
Eventually, a franchise will come.
The NFL Logistics
At first glance, it seems like the "easiest" way to put a franchise in London is to move an existing team there, building up a fanbase first by playing multiple International Series games.
The Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all played multiple recent games in London, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to play at least one "home" game per year for the next four years. John Oehser, a senior writer for the Jaguars' official site, intimated that the Jaguars could also play a "road" game in London during the next four years, further helping to build a fanbase there.
However, relocating a franchise to London doesn't avoid any of the above logistics problems, and it creates a mess of new ones.
The Bills are already playing home games in Toronto as part of a possible long-term move. The Patriots aren't going anywhere, the Buccaneers are stable and the Dolphins—while frustrated with their current stadium—are unlikely to abandon the southern Florida market.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have a lease that would require a massive, $100 million-plus payout to break, and few other teams look likely to move out of their home states in the next decade.
Besides, building a fanbase for a team and then moving it to London might be counter-productive.
English sports fans are used to clubs with 100-plus-year histories and generations of fans; a relocated American team with a geographically silly name (you won't find many jaguars in London) won't likely inspire fierce loyalty. The NFL could rename the team, but then why bother building a fanbase first?
There's also the matter of scheduling. Whichever franchise relocates suddenly guarantees its entire division an around-the-world journey every season. No team is looking to add the burdens of international travel costs, longer road trips and shorter practice weeks to its schedule.
The only way to bring the NFL to London practically is to expand.
A Foregone Conclusion
The first big benefit of expansion is money. The Houston Texans commanded a $700 million expansion fee, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame site, way back in 2002. The NFL could easily command a billion-dollar bounty (or more) for a new London team today.
The NFL's owners would certainly rather welcome a new member to their club—and split a billion dollars amongst themselves—than go through another franchise-relocation PR nightmare and deprive a major American TV market of a team.
In fact, that phrase "major American TV market" is the key.
As dead-set as the NFL is on expanding to London, it's even more so on returning to Los Angeles.
Goodell said last year the league "doesn't want to move any of our teams," per Mike Ozanian of Forbes, yet if it expands owners "probably don't want to go to 33." A team in London could be nicely balanced by a team in Los Angeles—and as Ozanian points out, that's two billion dollars to be divvied up.
However, the NFL's current alignment and schedule are almost ideal. The pleasing symmetry of 32 teams split into two conferences of 16 and eight divisions of four makes perfect sense, and makes scheduling relatively simple.
Having two five-team divisions and six four-team divisions doesn't make a ton of sense; unbalanced divisions throw off the schedule and make a fair playoff system almost impossible. What the NFL needs to do is get to 36 teams.
As Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported last year, it's "a foregone conclusion" that when the NFL returns to Los Angeles, it'll be a single stadium housing two teams. If both of those teams are expansion teams, that leaves only one more to get to 36.
With 36 teams, the NFL can re-align into six divisions of six, like so:
In this scenario, I've granted Vancouver the 36th team, as the Bills are already a "regional" team playing games in both Buffalo and Toronto. This also sets up a cross-conference rivalry between the Canadian and Los Angeleno teams, mimicking the situation in New York.
Speaking of New York, the NFC East accepts the London Whatevers and Jaguars, giving Whatevers fans a natural rivalry with the pre-built Jaguars fanbase. Not only does this make geographical sense, it also ensures the Whatevers are regularly playing some of the NFL's marquee teams.
There are some other pleasing twists in this proposal, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' return to the NFC Central, but let's not stray too far from the point: money.
With four expansion fees, the NFL will be swimming in cash. The expansion fees could build stadiums in London and Vancouver, reward realigned teams like the Carolina Panthers with free stadium upgrades, and still have billions to divvy up.
Realignment also opens the door for playoff expansion, which according to ESPN.com was a hot topic at May's NFL owner meetings—yet another source of increased revenue.
With 36 teams, expansion to a 14-team playoff format closely matches the current ratio of playoff teams to non-playoff teams. With three divisions of six in each conference, the top two teams from each division plus two wild cards would get a postseason berth.
With realignment, though, there's one major drawback: tighter schedules. With six teams in each division playing home-and-homes, that's 10 games out of a 16-game schedule spoken for—and no room to continue the current cross-division rotating schedule. Further, there's only one bye week to recover from increased cross-continental travel.
The solution, of course, is another one of the NFL's favorite money grabs: the 18-game schedule.
With an 18-game schedule, the NFL can maintain balanced divisional schedules, rotate cross-conference division schedules and still have three games per team left over for to preserve traditional rivalries and create marquee ratings matchups.
The league would likely go to two bye weeks to give players more time to rest from extra games and travel. By expanding both the regular season and playoffs, the NFL would be much closer to its goal of year-round football events.
Onward and Upward
Would any of these changes immediately increase the quality of football on the field? No.
In fact, they're likely to spread the talent pool of players, coaches, executives and officials much more thinly for years. Yet if the NFL truly wants to become a global league, it can't go halfway. Relocating an existing franchise to London incurs all of the headaches with very few of the benefits.
This plan is a big step towards the ultimate dream: franchises across the world. If the London Whatevers are a smashing success—and in this framework, they have every chance to be—it's easy to see a 40-team future with franchises spreading across Europe, Mexico and even Asia.
The talent pool, eventually, could include the entire world. As the success of Formula 1 racing and the UEFA Champions League have shown, global competition makes for incredibly high-quality competition—and insanely rich owners.
Today, that might sound like a Roger Goodell daydream, but this proposal is a realistic first step toward the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.
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