Going Global: International Expansion Could Be Next in the Post CBA/NFL Era
With the 2011 NFL season ready to get underway, and 10 years until we have to hear the words collective bargaining agreement again, this could be an exciting decade for the NFL.
Arguably the most powerful professional sports league on the planet, the NFL is seeing increasing support internationally, and the business minded amongst us will know, it's only a matter of time before Roger Goodell and the NFL start seeing £, € and ¥ signs.
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium for what is the fifth straight year that a regular season game has been played in London, and a sellout crowd expected, the desire for more action overseas could become incredibly lucrative for the NFL.
So, what potential is there for international expansion? What form would it take? More importantly, what is realistic?
A Little Bit of History To Start Things Off...
Though the International Series is still in its early days, the United Kingdom is no stranger to the NFL.
On the 3rd of August 1986, the NFL touched down in the UK for the first of nine preseason games in front of sellout crowds of 80,000 at the original Wembley Stadium.
Following early success, the international games became the American Bowl, which acted as a fifth preseason game for teams. At least one American Bowl game was played every year between 1986-2003, with as many as four a year in the early 1990s.
The last American Bowl was held in 2005 in Japan and saw the Atlanta Falcons topple the Indianapolis Colts 27-21 in the Tokyo Dome.
As of this point in time the NFL has dipped its toes in: Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom.
In 2005, Roger Goodell ended the American Bowl program and closed down NFL Europe (which was said to be losing $30 million a season), citing a new international strategy as the reason for the moves, that would focus on playing regular season games internationally.
Which Brings Us to Today
On the 23rd of October 2011, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will call Wembley Stadium home, as they host the Chicago Bears in a game that will hopefully provide more excitement for British fans than last years 49ers/Broncos Toilet Bowl.
Before moving to London in 2006, the International Series set an NFL attendance record (at the time) in Mexico City in its first year, with 103,467 fans piling into the Estadio Azteca to see the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-14.
From that point on, the NFL set up shop at Wembley Stadium and has gone from strength to strength staging five wildly successful games, that have captured the imagination of British fans.
While the London game has proved to be a great money maker for the NFL, the question has to be: Where do we go from here? If the London experiment is such an overwhelming success, there must be a next step coming soon, right?
Scenario 1: A Superbowl in London
One idea that has been talked about is a London Superbowl.
To say that the idea of having the Superbowl played in London was criticized would be an understatement.
In the Summer of 2009, the league's owners voted down a motion to hold the Superbowl in London in the future. It didn't come as a surprise that the notion was voted down, with a vast number of issues such as the time difference causing disagreement.
Right now the Superbowl is one of the most American of American events and to stage it outside of the United States would be crazy.
There's no denying that one day somewhere down the line this idea could rear its head again, but the phrase of the day has to be, baby steps.
Scenario 2: The Pat Kirwan Model
In his book Take Your Eye Off The Ball, NFL.com analyst, and all-around football guru, Pat Kirwan, outlines a way for the NFL to test the waters of international interest in the game.
If we had a 17-game schedule, every team would have eight home games and eight traditional road games. But then every team could also play one game outside the U.S. each year.
There could be European games every weekend-a rotation between London, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. American fans won't object; it'll be one more chance to watch their team every season (not to mention an intriguing option for a family vacation).
Each team would play one neutral-site game every year, and the NFL can see which international markets hold up.
It's an interesting prospect and one that does seem entirely achievable within the next decade. With the backlash against an 18-game season stifling CBA negotiations and eventually being taken off the table, it might be hard to bring this into discussion.
However, if the NFL is serious about playing games overseas, this might be the fairest way to do it, for both fans and players.
Scenario 3: More of the Same
Perhaps the most likely scenario, and altogether least exciting one, would be for more games to be played in the current form.
That means, a team gives up a home game in order to play overseas, with the hope of boosting their international fan base.
While the UK would welcome more games in London, it doesn't exactly do much more than the current format in terms of gauging the international appetite for the NFL, and would be a side step rather than a step forward.
However, Pittsburgh Steelers Owner Dan Rooney has expressed a desire to have the Steelers play a regular season game at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. As the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Rooney has suggested this could happen as early as the 2012 season.
If the Rooneys do try and spearhead a game in the Republic of Ireland, they can rest assured that Big Ben is on board: "I think it would be fun to go play in Ireland where Ambassador Rooney is. That would be kind of fun."
This would mean more home games get benched in favor of an international venue, and it would be interesting to see whether it becomes a significant issue to homegrown fans.
Scenario 4: A Franchise in London
Many people have said that it's only a matter of time before a franchise makes its way to London.
To reference Pat Kirwan's book once again, he provides an interesting insight into the topic:
Someday, there will be an NFL team based in London. There may even be two teams in European cities, so that a team from the U.S. could go over for two weeks, play two road games, and come home. There are owners in the league who have told me they'd rather control a team based in London than the one they already own.
You could point to the travel as a reason why a franchise in London is an unrealistic prospect, but the truth is, a flight from the east coast to London is shorter than a flight from the east coast to somewhere like Seattle.
There's also the question of whether the average Joe in London would buy into a franchise full of American faces that were otherwise unknown to him/her, with no British talent on the roster.
There's also the question of whether the UK would embrace a team that will likely struggle in its inception. Could they consistently pull big enough numbers if they go 2-14 in their first two seasons?
The idea of a franchise in London is best described in the same way Cam Newton is, boom or bust. There is certainly potential there to have great success, as one of the most visited cities in the world, London would give the NFL enormous exposure.
However, whether or not the initial hysteria that would surround it could be maintained into the future is something that needs serious thought.
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