Football is America's sport.
Some would argue that it's baseball, but they would be wrong. The numbers don't lie.
Football is watched by more people, both in the stands and on the TV in the U.S., and more people list it as their favorite sport, too.
Heck, it even has America in the name, i.e., "American football."
And yet, for a nation as great at exporting its most popular franchises worldwide as America is—Coca Cola, McDonald's, Disney, Microsoft and Apple, to name but a few—American sports in general, and American football in particular, have always failed to gain traction worldwide.
There is, for example, no international American football tournament, like we see with soccer, rugby, cricket or even hockey and basketball. American football is not represented at the Olympics either.
In fact, with the exception of the CFL—a league still dominated by American players at the skill positions—and a tiny number of amateur and collegiate leagues around the world, American football is a sport almost totally contained within the United States; though not for want of trying.
The World League of American Football, NFL Europe League and NFL Europa have all tried to establish professional gridiron football leagues in Europe, and further afield.
However, since 2006, Roger Goodell seems to have made it his personal mission to evangelize NFL football around the world, and he has had success doing so.
Following the successful Fútbol Americano game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers at Estadio Azteca in Mexico, which drew record crowds of 103,467, Goodell saw the draw of football abroad.
Soon after being made commissioner in 2006, Goodell set up the first game in London, between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. It was a roaring success and helped propel American Football into the public conscience of the British population for the first time in a long time.
In the space of just four short years since the first UK game, American football has gone from an oddity, a single game a year (namely, the Super Bowl) played after midnight and watched by just a handful of dedicated fans, to a major and lucrative export.
Several games are shown live on Sky Sports, the dominant sports channel in the UK, each week, with the Red Zone Chanel and NFL GameDay Morning finding a home on the TV in the UK as well. ESPN America shows numerous college games to boot, and football is gaining a real following.
Amongst my circle of close friends here in the UK, I know people in no fewer than four separate NFL fantasy football leagues, and the NFLUK.com fantasy league has gone from an insignificant anomaly with just a few thousand players, to a major competition with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of entrants each week.
It is no surprise, then, that international expansion is being discussed as a real option for the league as it moves forward.
With rampant speculation that the Bills will move to Toronto for many—if not all—of their regular season games, and the rabid fan base in Mexico and the UK, could we be preparing to see the end of the concept of the National Football League?
Could It Really Work?
As much as the league, and the owners, love international games, there has been no shortage of criticism of these games from fans, players and coaches.
While the league loves the opportunity to spread it's brand into lucrative new markets—Sky Sports, the BBC and ESPN America now pay much more for the rights to the games they show than they did a few years ago—and owners love to build fan bases outside of their geographic constraints, fans have complained about losing the chance to see their team play at home and the coaches and players hate the logistical nightmare it involves.
Growing from a couple of international games per season to a full-blown franchise in London would be a big ask, but would it—as some have suggested—be impossible?
I think not.
In fact, by 2020 I predict that we will have no fewer than three franchises abroad: at least one in Canada, one in Mexico and at least one in the UK or Western Europe.
However, to get there, a number of logistical hurdles would need to be overcome.
An Established, Loyal Fan Base
In the mind of Goodell and the NFL brass, the UK is still a largely untapped market, and, to an extent, that is true. However, the UK, like Canada and Mexico, already has a sizable fan base.
Surprisingly, this isn't immediately the positive it seems. For example, most football fans in the UK are not flocking to London Olympian games, but, rather, are already loyal to a franchise in the USA. The Patriots, Giants, Bears, Eagles, Raiders and Dolphins all have large, very loyal fan bases over here. Practically every other franchise has its fair share of fans too.
Teams like the Cardinals even have Featured Columnists writing for them from the UK—yes, I am referring to myself here—but regardless of who the fans cheer for, every NFL team can claim its fair share of UK fans.
The international series events will attest to this fact. Though the vast majority of fans in the stands were clad in NFL-gear, only a handful of the jerseys on display in the stands were those of the teams on the field.
And while these football fans will happily flock to a one-off event, you have to wonder how many would turn in their Saints, Buccaneers or Cowboys jerseys to begin cheering for the London franchise. I, for one, would remain a Cardinals fan, my brother a Chiefs fan and both of us have admitted that we would likely only travel to the games as away fans if and when our current teams travelled to the UK.
Lack of a Dedicated Stadium
The second stumbling block the league will face is the lack of a dedicated gridiron football stadium. The UK has no lack of stadiums—those dedicated to association football, rugby, cricket and athletics—but none are ideal for being the permanent home of an NFL franchise.
Though many Association football or rugby stadiums can be converted for gridiron football, none of them are ideal for it. Soccer and rugby are both, like American football, fall/winter sports. Like gridiron football, the majority of games are also played on the weekend.
In both cases, their playing field dimensions are significantly different from an NFL field. While NFL fields have very specific dimensions, rugby and soccer both allow for some level of variance in the size of their fields. Rugby fields are significantly wider than NFL fields and can also be much longer, moving the fans further away from the action.
A significant number of soccer fields, on the other hand, are not long enough to support an NFL field, the minimum length being only 100 yards, with stands often being as close to the action as possible, and a notable few, in spite of sufficient length, are not wide enough.
What's more, as practically every suitable stadium in the UK is natural grass, owners and ground crews—who already have a hard enough time keeping the playing field in good condition—would likely not take kindly to having any extra games played on their field, especially if it involves completely re-tooling the field for multiple sports each week.
And while a national, multipurpose stadium like Wembely or Twickenham is the ideal location for a single match, few English fans would stand to the home of English football, or rugby, becoming the home field for an American football team.
Anyone wishing to start a franchise in London, or anywhere else in the UK, would quickly need to build their own stadium, or else redevelop and permanently reconfigure a current stadium.
Schedule, Travel and Logistical Difficulties
One of the primary complaints about the London games has been the difficulty involved in traveling to a different country. Jet lag, the logistics of transporting the required equipment to the UK, difference in climate, money, visas, etc., have all been named as factors that most players and coaches don't really want to have to deal with.
Scheduling for the NFL is difficult enough as it is and designing a schedule which also takes into account the difficulties of sending as many as nine teams to the UK, without negatively affecting them for the remainder of the season, will be a difficult task, perhaps a bridge too far in the eyes of some.
Solving Some of These Problems
In order to achieve real success, the league would need to win over the hearts and minds of the general public, those would-be fans who have yet to develop any kind of affinity for any current franchise. And that won't be easy.
To do so, they will need to win converts to American football, without driving fans to any particular team.
One way to do this is through playing various "All-Star" games in the UK. Though few fans would stand moving the Pro Bowl away from Hawaii, several other All-Star games could be established and played in the UK.
An "International Bowl," with the best NFL players of foreign origin taking on a selection of NFL talent is one example, or an NFL vs. CFL rivalry game, played with hybrid rules in the neutral UK, is another.
However, my suggestion is for the league to purchase a UFL or CFL franchise, and locate it in the UK. The NFL would need to subsidise ticket prices and promote it heavily, but it would allow for fans to learn about American football, without actually investing too heavily in any one team.
As for the stadium problem, there are no two ways about it. They will need to build, or redevelop a stadium for football use.
A ground like Upton Park or White Heart Lane, which may be vacated when West Ham United or Tottenham Hotspur move to the new Olympic Stadium, could be an option, as could taking over one of the stadiums that is now too large for its club, as they have been relegated out of the top-flight of the English league system.
But, however they do it, a custom stadium will need to be put in place before a franchise can hope to move to the UK.
However, having a CFL or UFL franchise in the UK would mean that the NFL would be able to develop this stadium over a longer period of time, while also building the fan base.
The final difficulties are not so easy to overcome, however, but are solvable.
Overcoming the Travel and Logistical Issues
Though the distance issues are a real concern to some, they are not as difficult as some would have you believe.
The distance between West Coast cities like Seattle and San Diego, and East Coast cities like Miami and Foxborough, is between 2,500 and 2,700 miles. Traveling to the UK is only a little further—okay, between 700 and 1,500 miles extra—for these East Coast teams.
This may seem like a lot, but it is still just one extra direct, long-haul flight for each team who plays in the UK. It's not ideal, but it's easy to forget that many other sports are able to manage it without too much difficulty in international competition, or even club competition like the UEFA Europa League and other similar cups.
The league is planning to extend the season to 18 games, and with the addition of a few more franchises, that schedule could grow still further. The addition of a second bye week could alleviate many of these difficulties, and it would not be impossible to sandwich many of the international games between a long week and a bye.
To make up for the advantage they have against teams having to travel to the UK for them, it would not be unreasonable to stipulate that the first few games of the season, until bye weeks kick in, are away games for the London-based franchise.
Many of the logistical problems would also disappear if the NFL had a permanent presence in the UK. Teams had to transport an unrealistic amount of equipment to the UK for their game, but much of that could be avoided if the franchise were based there, and broadcast, training and game-day equipment were permanently located near the London team's stadium.
However, that works only for the East Coast teams. For Central and Western teams, traveling to the UK, though not impossible, is certainly not an easy task and could be considered a real disadvantage to them.
For the 49ers to travel to London and return home, even after a long week and with a bye week to follow, was considered by many the turning point in their 2010 season. The players still had nearly a full day in an airplane, not including transfers, which may be more than many teams would be willing to settle for.
However, the answer may already exist and is being trialled in Buffalo and Toronto without them even realizing. The answer is to host two or three games a season, ideally when playing West Coast teams, in a secondary market.
The team would be jointly owned and located in two cities—London, England and a second football city like Norman, Oklahoma or Lincoln, Nebraska—cities that are too small to deserve their own franchises, but decidedly football states. Both already have the stadiums and infrastructure necessary to host a couple of NFL games each year, but will never get a franchise otherwise.
It would mean jerseys, TV rights and all that goes with it would sell into these small, but lucrative, markets; the games would likely sell out their 80,000+ seat stadiums, if only because of the novelty (which is no bad thing) and would also ease the scheduling difficulties, to boot.
My suggestion is, depending on the length of the season, that two or three regular season home games, one preseason game and Wild Card and divisional round home playoff games be scheduled to take place in the US.
Where Could It Go from There?
If successful, I believe the UK could realistically host a whole division of teams, with franchises ideally located in London, Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Manchester or Liverpool and Scotland or Cardiff, Wales.
Each team would look to partner with a smaller American market, bringing pro football to the biggest fans who would not otherwise get to see a franchise of their own.
Having a British division would alleviate still more of the scheduling and logistical problems. It would perhaps also make football a realistic collegiate sport in the UK and would open up a whole new set of potential development grounds for players too.
This format could also realistically be emulated in Canada and Latin America and though it would result in massive expansion, something some fans and players may not want, expanding the brand and sport beyond the geographic borders of the United States may be worth more to everyone than they realise.