The Football Association has confirmed that it will hold talks with the National Football League about moving a London franchise into Wembley Stadium imminently, saying such a team could materialise "within the next five years.”
The FA, which owns Wembley Stadium through a subsidiary, is keen to extend an agreement with the NFL which will see three regular season games played at the venue in 2014, and has begun talks about the possibility of basing a franchise in England’s capital.
FA general secretary Alex Horne suggested that an agreement could happen in the near future, telling The Times (subscription required):
We are talking to them about a longer-term agreement [to host games] beyond 2016.
You may see a franchise discussion come up. There is a big question about whether we can house a franchise alongside England in the autumn.
That will be really interesting. It would need an owner to do it. I think it’s possible in the next five years.
Building the new Wembley Stadium cost the FA around £798 million (although that rose to a reported £1bn when factoring in local transport and infrastructure costs) upon its completion in 2007, a sum that English football's governing body has been aggressively trying to earn back ever since.
Primarily that has been by hosting football matches—all England internationals are at the venue, along with domestic cup finals and some semi-finals—but the ground has been used for other sporting and cultural events where possible, including the NFL, rugby union and a number of rock concerts.
Adding a permanent, paying NFL franchise as a tenant would be an attractive option to the FA, especially if it did not impact on the stadium's primary role of hosting England matches.
With the NFL regular season running from September to December, in theory it should be relatively easy to accommodate around England football matches, with the majority of Wembley's other major sporting engagements taking place from February to June.
Last year England played at Wembley five times in that period, an unusually high number due to the FA's organisational desire to have its World Cup qualification campaign finish with a succession of home games.
If an NFL team had also been occupying the ground it could have played away games around those fixtures; while the fact that most competitive international matches now take place on Fridays and Tuesdays means it would theoretically be possible to play some NFL games on the intervening Sunday, although that would not be an ideal solution.
There would also be concerns about maintaining the pitch; which suffered horribly in its first years hosting NFL matches, but after extensive attention seems to have overcome those issues.
Going from hosting two games to hosting eight might see such problems re-emerge but parties have a number of years to plan around those obstacles.
"It’s a balance for us," Horne added. "It’s football’s home, England’s home first and foremost.
"If we could find another tenant that fitted in and worked, I would go for it. It’s doable. We owe it to ourselves to see if it can work."
Finding an owner to get involved in the project may prove difficult, but not impossible. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who have pledged to play one “home” game at Wembley for each of the next three seasons, have long been tipped to relocate across the Atlantic.
The Jaguars’ owner, billionaire businessman Shahid Khan, recently bought west London football club Fulham.
It is also possible that the NFL would create a new London franchise, although that expansion would create a number of knock-on problems that would require solving.
In his last public declarations on the matter, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell indicated that a London franchise was under serious consideration, although he did not elaborate on the specific details.
Per The Daily Telegraph, he told reporters on the eve of this year’s Super Bowl:
I believe that the response to the third game in the UK, and the way that the fans have embraced that and sold it out in such a short period of time, is just another sign that the more we give the fans there, the more they want. That’s a great tribute to their passion.
Our next step [in London] is something we’re going to have to evaluate.
We will be continuing to invest in that marketplace and find ways to engage those fans even more deeply. I’m optimistic that they will respond positively.
According to The Times, Horne would not rule out Wembley bidding to host the Super Bowl should there be a London franchise.
The Super Bowl is a lucrative event for any host city, with the recent staging in New York estimated by Bloomberg to be worth nearly $600m to the local economy.
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