NFL in London: A Great Idea if the Right Steps Are Taken
Since the NFL played its first game in London's Wembly Stadium in 2007, it would be hard to call the event anything but a rousing success.
85,000 fans packed the stadium to see the New England Patriots pummel the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, even more than the 83,000 who came to see the Chargers and Saints battle it out last year.
Speaking as one who was living in the city at the time, I can say without a doubt that I saw more Chargers swag in the days leading up to that game than I did in an entire week in San Diego proper. Saints fans were out in force as well.
The NFL's International Series has consistently had positive results.
One game at Estadio Azteca drew over 100,000 fans. All three games in London have been sold out with variations in attendance due to stadium configurations, and the Bills game in Toronto was predictably well received.
So you can forgive the NFL if they are a little high on the hog. They've got a virtual monopoly on the sport and they are successfully exporting it outside of the US. The only thing that can derail the juggernaut now would be a protracted strike or lockout once the current CBA expires.
Roger Goodell's nightmares aside, senior NFL officials have once again floated the idea of having an NFL franchise across the pond. With three years of data now in the books, there are some concrete steps that would seem prudent for the NFL to take before going full-bore into Jolly Old.
First, have a dedicated practice facility for visiting teams.
Home-field advantage is one thing, but when the opponent has to adjust to a six or seven hour time difference, that's quite another.
When asked about playing in the first match hosted in London, Michael Strahan noted that the jet lag was one of the things that made the game difficult, and it's quite easy to see why this would be the case. When only one team has to deal with it, that's quite another.
A way to combat this issue would be for teams to go over on Monday or Tuesday to get adjusted to the time. However, this leaves teams without a place to practice, and as bad as playing while jet-lagged might be, playing without practice would be much worse.
If the NFL invested in a state-of-the-art practice facility, teams could come over early and still have the benefit of film rooms, practice fields, and meeting facilities that they would have had they been back home.
Second, keep ticket prices reasonable
London is an expensive city; it's not quite as bad as Tokyo or Moscow, but it's not a cheap place to live or work. The ticket prices for the once a year events are within the range one might expect them to be: ￡100 ($150-$200, depending on exchange rates) for the best seats down to ￡45 for the nose bleeds.
However, if a home team is going to play eight games there, that pricing structure isn't likely to work. The NFL is still the new kid in town and will, I promise you, lose out to important soccer and rugby matches for ticket buyers.
Walking in with the idea that they can charge the rather bloated prices they do in the US, where they're already the most popular sport, will lead to half-full stadiums and bitter disappointment.
Suck it up, be the new guy, get fans into the seats and excited about the team. Three or four years on, jack up the price as need be, but don't expect to sell out eight games a year at ￡100 per seat right from day one.
In a related note, the NFL should be working with domestic teams to arrange packages for away fans. Especially if the economy picks up, plenty of fans would leap at the chance to follow their favorite team to Europe.
Away travel arranged by the club is something that has worked with relatively good success for soccer teams, and would be another way for the NFL to control their product. Add in a group discount for fans traveling through these arrangements and everyone wins.
Third, make provisions for the London team on the road
The NFL is rightly going to be concerned with hurting extant teams with a trip to London, and rightly so. They've already got a great product and jeopardizing that for a chance to expand into a market that may or may not be ready would be foolish at best. However, the senior brass has got to be cognizant of what it's going to be like for Club London to travel west.
Think Strahan had it bad playing the hapless Dolphins at night? At least his body felt like it was 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. Imagine trying to play the Patriots or the Jets or the Eagles at a 3:00PM kick-off when your body thinks it's 9:00 or 10:00PM.
Worse yet, imagine if NBC flexed to their game for a Sunday Night game late in the season! Football is hard enough to play when you're healthy and well-prepared; playing it when your body really feels like it ought to be asleep is a recipe for disaster.
Generally speaking, teams don't like to play several away games in a row, but I've got a feeling this will be an exception.
Smart use of grouped away games, a well-placed bye week, and open communication with the TV affiliates will make this experiment all the more likely to work. Don't privilege one team over the rest, but don't punish them for being so far from home.
Last, be in constant communication with the players union regarding this move.
If MLB goes through with plans to put a team in the the Pacific Rim, they'll likely be able to stock with fully capable players from the area. Some of these players might be guys like Hediki Matsui or Daisuke Matsuzaka who have played in MLB, but are originally from Japan. Others could be players like Yu Darvish, a phenom in NPB that might want a different set of competition. Still others could just be single American guys who are willing to play anywhere as long as the money is good.
The point is, because of the international nature of baseball, they shouldn't have an issue finding people who want to play away from the continental United States.
Football doesn't have that luxury.
Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single British-born player currently in the NFL; that doesn't mean there aren't a few, but if there are, they escape me now. I'm sure there will be players willing to live and work in the UK, but don't just assume that. Be in communication with the players union about whether such a move would be welcome.
The NFL has plenty of players from outside the US, but almost to a man they played their college ball in the states. So, they've been here for a number of years, even if they were born and raised in Samoa or elsewhere.
Ultimately, if the players don't want to play there, the team's quality is going to suffer and put the whole operation in jeopardy.
A successful move to London could be a huge boon for the league, not only in terms of new revenue streams, but also in terms of gained prestige due to a greater international presence. Taking a few steps to make sure the move is successful could save a lot of heartache in the end, and help to ensure a successful transition to the rest of the world.
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