Will London Get An NFL Team?

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Back in October 2007 the BBC’s website produced a headline: NFL takes UK seriously ahead of the first regular season game to be hosted outside of North America between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants.

The game was pretty turgid, 13-10 to the Giants with the Wembley pitch becoming a quagmire, which the NFL and officials received widespread criticism for. Even Giants then-quarterback, Eli Manning dubbed it a “mud-fest” but it was also a taste of the NFL which was a long time coming, with the last exhibition game held in the UK in 1993.

Looking back now, the fledgling NFL International Series has become a fully formed yearly event. Much credit must go to the NFL and also London for making this the case. In 2013, the NFL added a second London game, a third in 2014 and then finally a fourth in 2017, to tie in with the tenth anniversary of the first face off.

In fact, the international games will continue all the way through until 2025 as it currently stands, with Tottenham Hotspur signing a ten year deal to host the games at its gleaming new stadium also.

Why Is The NFL Holding International Games?

Primarily, the NFL is seeking to grow the audience of the game and make it more international, these games help it to achieve this. In fact, according to a number of studies the NFL fan bases in a number of European countries, as well as countries like Brazil, have jumped significantly in the last number of years.

In addition, with interest remaining extremely high in the London games every year, the NFL is also seeking to increase participation of overseas players in the League, as just 3% of players last season were born overseas.

Indeed, the NFL has even launched an Academy this year for young players in the UK to develop their skills and hopefully get them to the League. Meanwhile, it is also continuing the International Player Pathway (IPP) as a way of getting more overseas players into the League. Most notable of all players to come through the programme to date is Efe Obada of the Caroline Panthers, who has played in every game to date so far this season.

Could the UK actually get an NFL team though?

In an interview with ESPN, NFL executive vice president Mark Waller said that having a franchise in London by 2022 was a “logical time frame from a business perspective”.

Given the success of the games, and their increasing number, it is clear that the League is testing all the variables and scenarios that a franchise in London could face. For example, most recently, there has been discussion about a team holding back-to-back games in London as an experiment.

“As part of our long-term effort that is something we want to see to test out a team being in London for two games over a week. Whether that is in 2020 or another year we are not sure yet. That is a key element of exploration of a franchise in London.”

Chris Halpin, NFL chief strategy and growth officer, The Times

Most obvious candidate to make the move to London, to date, has been the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thanks to owner Shad Khan also owning football club Fulham, and also attempting to buy Wembley for £1 billion last year (as well as the Jags being signed up to play one game a year in the UK until 2025).

With Wembley off the table for Khan however, in has stepped Tottenham Hotspur to build a close relationship with the NFL, as confirmed by Spurs’ chairperson Daniel Levy.

“Clearly we wouldn’t both be putting all this into this stadium if there wasn’t the prospect of one day a team eventually coming to London. But there are certainly no guarantees that A) a team comes to London, and B) they have to use our stadium. I think we’re all putting the effort in in the hopes that they will do it.”

Daniel Levy, Spurs Chairperson, ESPN

While undoubtedly the interest is there from both the League, owners and prominent stakeholders in the UK (including current London Mayor Sadiq Khan), it would not be as simple as transplanting a team over to the capital of the UK.

Geography is the most obvious issue facing any London-based team, with the longest journey facing any NFL team currently five and a half hours. For teams on the West Coast, the situation would be much more challenging also for London games. Logistically, this would need to be worked out (with ideas around this being that a London-based team plays games in “blocks” of home and away games). Yet, despite this, a solution may not be found regarding Playoff football, (especially concerning wildcards).

More seriously however is that it would require a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which underpins the employment of NFL players (and is agreed every few years). In addition, given that the UK has a different economic, taxation and employment environment to the U.S., these differences would need to be explored and ironed out before any move to London for a team.

Given such hurdles, how likely is it? Well, for the time being, not likely at all, but it could well happen in the next decade, especially if Brexit makes it easier, from a regulatory standpoint to shift a team over.

For the moment however, a respondent to the NFLPA’s question about if they would play for a UK-based franchise best summed it up.

“Stay in America, man”.

Cary Williams, cornerback, ESPN
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