The potential of a move to London by an NFL team has not gone without its doubters. Since the National Football League first brought the NFL International Series to the U.K. in 2007, many claimed that the league had some fairly unrealistic expectations about the growth of American football abroad.
Yet since that initial game in its first year, the NFL International Series has only expanded from one game per year to three, and has proven that there is a significant enough local fan base to fill London’s Wembley Stadium every time a game is played there. As a matter of fact, every single game (with the exception of the 2011 season which was preempted by the NFL Lockout) has sold out well in advance of kickoff. Over 40,000 people purchased tickets for all three games in 2015, accounting for almost half of all seats. The games have been such a success that the NFL began moving to four games in 2017, and likely would have done so in 2015 had it not been for England hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Still, there is quite a huge jump between the NFL hosting three regular season games in London and relocating a franchise to play there full-time. There are a number of challenges that the National Football League and any future London team would face, yet in spite of these hurdles there is nothing that is overtly prohibiting the placement of a team there.
The NFL has not indicated any intent to expand the number of teams beyond its current number of 32, so any references to a future team in London imply that a preexisting franchise would relocate to London full-time.
Let’s cover the 7 main challenges facing the establishment of an NFL franchise in London:
1. Time and distance
One of the oft-heard objections to relocating an NFL team to the U.K. is the issue of London’s distance relative to the remainder of teams in the league. There is no question that a London franchise would represent a distant outpost as not only the sole non-U.S. team but also the only one on the other side of the Atlantic. Challenges such as jetlag and time zone changes have also been discussed. Still, these are by no means issues that cannot be overcome.
The distance from London to Boston – the next-closest NFL city – is 3,269 miles (5,261 km) with an average flight time of 6 hours and 45 minutes. The distance from Miami to Seattle – the two most remote NFL cities – is 2,724 miles (4,384 km) with an average flight time of 6 hours and 5 minutes. The flight from London to Boston is a mere 40 minutes longer than the flight from Miami to Seattle. Relatively speaking, the distance itself is a minor issue.
Additionally, the NFL would circumvent most issues of jetlag and time zone changes by scheduling back-to-back home games as well as back-to-back away games. With 16 regular season games (including 8 away games), a London team would only need to make four roundtrip flights from London to the United States per regular season. If the NFL really gets creative, it could schedule 3 away games in a row, cutting the number of roundtrip transatlantic flights to three.
While three to four roundtrip transatlantic flights may sound daunting to some, most players and coaches would adapt to the travel. Additionally, a London team would have a major home-field advantage as they’d be playing teams that are unaccustomed to the trip. This would help the team remain competitive early on. The team would also be required to maintain a U.S. base of operations as well, including a training facility and offices, which would make its transition a lot easier.
The team most-often associated with a move to London is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are signed-on to play one game in London every year through 2020. Should the team eventually move to London, a transition to a new division would be necessary. The Jaguars, who currently play in the NFL’s AFC South, would shift to the AFC East and swap places with the Miami Dolphins in a fairly seamless move. The Dolphins are geographically situated in the American south already and it would cut the average travel time down for both teams. The Jaguars would then face the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, and New York Jets as division foes, all with average flight times ranging from 6:45 and 7:30. This makes the move to London all the more realistic for the NFL.
2. The franchise that moves to London will probably be a poor team
It is inevitable that any team moving to London will probably be coming off several consecutive losing seasons. It is often because of the team’s poor play that the local support for the organization wanes, prompting the franchise to move in the first place.
The Jaguars, who ordinarily would be toward the bottom of the barrel in terms of fan support in the U.K. due to their lack of recent success and small media market, ironically have the largest fan support group of any team in the entire United Kingdom. The Union JAX – the Jaguars fan club in the U.K. – boasts over 33,000 members and is steadily growing. The reasons for this are three-fold.
Firstly, the Jaguars have already played in London twice (tied with the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the most) and are currently signed on to play there once a year through the 2016 season. Since they’re a regular visitor to London and are committed to play there every year for the foreseeable future, they’ve benefited from the most exposure of any NFL team during the series. Secondly, the Jaguars employ two full-time staff in London to coordinate marketing efforts for the team. They’ve invested the most into building a fan base and their success is evident in the Union JAX. Lastly, the Jaguars are a young and exciting team with flashy, modern uniforms. They’re appealing from a visual standpoint, plus the Jaguars are becoming the loveable underdog to those who follow the team. Their fans are willing to be patient as the organization rebuilds with a strong foundation around a good, young, core group of players.
3. There will be a lack of interest in 8 games
Sure, the NFL is able to sell out three games in London per season. The league is still a novelty in London, but how will they fare once they’re trying to fill the stadium eight times per year?
One particularly positive attribute of British sports fans is that they’re fiercely loyal to their respective sports teams, perhaps more so than any country in the world. Once a 49er fan, or a Cowboys fan, or a Bears fan, they’re almost certainly fans for life. It becomes a part of their personal identity, and just about every NFL fan has already established themselves as a fan of a particular team. In that regard, the concept of shifting loyalties is rather unlikely in the U.K. to say the least. Any team that moves to London would have to compete with that.
However, an interesting dynamic has been developing over the past few years of the NFL International Series. Many British fans have begun adopting the Jacksonville Jaguars as their 2nd team due to their commitment to the London market. Since the Jaguars are slowly becoming the de facto “home” team there, fans of other teams have developed a bit of a “soft spot” for the Jags. Despite finishing in the bottom half of the AFC South for the past four seasons and not winning a division championship since 1999, fan support is pouring in for the team.
Admittedly, selling out eight Jaguars games per year will be a daunting task. The Jaguars can’t even do that in their hometown of Jacksonville: the last time the Jaguars sold out a game at EverBank Field was September 23rd, 2012 against the Indianapolis Colts. While the London market is many times larger than Jacksonville’s, that does not immediately translate to sold-out games.
The determining factor in stadium attendance, however, won’t be how many fans the Jaguars themselves can pull in. At least not immediately. Rather, it will come down to how many fans the Jaguars’ opponents will attract to the games.
So far, the NFL International Series has proven that it will sell out any game in London, regardless of which teams are competing. The reason for this is that teams like the Patriots, Rams, Falcons, Saints, and others only play in London every few years at best. Fans of each of these teams may not have an opportunity to see their squad play in London again for several years, so they’re willing to spend money on tickets for this unique opportunity. It is conceivable that there may be more fans for the away teams at London Jaguars home games than Jaguars fans themselves. Additionally, a rivalry will likely spring up between future Jaguars fans who root for the home team in the U.K. and those who support other teams in the NFL. This adds to the excitement and drama of a London-based NFL franchise.
Plus, let’s not forget this new team in London would be the only NFL team in all of Europe, essentially offering the franchise a monopoly on the entire European market.
4. NFL players don’t want to play in London
Have you ever been to London? It’s a great city and a fun experience. We’re not talking about Siberia here, like they’re being exiled out into the wilderness or something. London has a thriving ambiance and is one of the financial and cultural capitals of the world. American soccer players routinely play in the English Premier League and enjoy it immensely, plus there are zero potential linguistic issues with the United States and the United Kingdom sharing the same language.
Plus, most guys are happy just to be in the NFL. It’s so difficult to make and stay on an NFL roster, so few players have the luxury of being that selective with teams. The ones that do have the benefit of choosing may in fact see London as a unique cultural opportunity that the other NFL cities can’t offer. London would have no more of a significant disadvantage in this respect than an advantage.
5. NFL teams don’t want to move to London
It is true that there have not been many teams whom have expressed interest in moving to London. The greater likelihood is that an NFL team will relocate to Los Angeles first, not London. Los Angeles has a proven NFL market and has even housed two teams at once (the former Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Raiders) from 1982-1994.
However, it only takes one team to make the leap. The Jaguars are very keen on relocating to London. Their owner, Shahid Khan, was born in Pakistan and is the current owner of Fulham F.C. They haven’t announced any intentions to move in part because they want to continue exploring the possibility and because they don’t want to alienate their current fan base. A move to London would be at least 4-5 years away, so a premature announcement could spell a host of issues for its fan base in Jacksonville.
The most likely of all scenarios is that one to two teams move to Los Angeles, and one to London. Jacksonville is a small market by U.S. standards, and Shahid Khan is well-aware of the value of accessing the U.K./European market. His team would be nearly unrivaled in terms of media exposure. Currently the Jaguars are the only team that has been linked to a London relocation, but one team is enough.
6. The financial barriers are too great (i.e. taxes, salaries, and salary caps)
This is one of the most common arguments against an NFL team relocating to London, however it is likely one of the most irrelevant. Of all the things that pose a challenge to the National Football League, money is truly the least of its concerns. The number of financial resources behind the multi-billion dollar National Football League are endless, and any financial complications they may face are speed bumps, not dead-ends.
The league will ultimately allow special dispensation to a London franchise to skew player salaries toward a level that accounts for a different tax system and high cost of living comparative to other cities in the United States. Incidentally, if that means that the NFL will need to raise the salary cap for a London franchise to account for these differences, it will undoubtedly do so. Additionally, the British government has indicated its willingness to offer tax breaks to an NFL franchise in London. The financial challenges are simply not great enough to be something to that would prohibit the NFL’s support for relocation.
NFL teams that play regular season games in London already issue players their weekly paychecks to account for U.K. taxes, which go to the British government since that paycheck is technically earned there. Ultimately there will be a balanced salary system in place that levels the playing field for all teams in the league.
7. The NFL tried to enter the European market before and it didn’t work
Indeed, the World League of American Football/NFL Europe did not produce the results that the NFL had hoped for. The league had hoped to jump into untapped markets and turn a profit while establishing a foothold on the continent for years to come. It just didn’t turn out in quite the way NFL owners had hoped.
We’ve talked about this issue countless times at The Growth of a Game, and the resounding reason for this is clear: lack of continuity. The league was struggling to keep things together from year-to-year from a financial, personnel, and fan support standpoint. Every team had an almost entirely new roster each season, preventing fans from developing support for specific players. Second-tier players were simply not as compelling as the top-level talent of the NFL. The league once went on hiatus during the 1993 and 1994 seasons, then chose a path of consolidation rather than expansion, resulting in a primarily German affair. In the end, the league was far more NFL Deutschland than NFL Europa. The league pulled out when the financial losses proved too great and too constant.
The difference between NFL Europe and a London expansion is that an NFL team is permanent. You’re getting the premier American football talent from all around the world, and a team with core players who will be with the organization for years on end. NFL Europe had too much player turnover and always felt like it was on the verge of collapsing, something that would never happen to a permanent NFL team.
The landscape of American football in Europe has also changed a lot since 2007. The number of teams around the continent has likely doubled, with leagues popping up in places like Portugal, Romania, Latvia, and Estonia, among others. The NFL has become so widely available due to the advent of streaming live games, and it’s easier than ever to follow your favorite teams.
Regardless of any issues that may present itself, they serve merely as challenges for the league, not roadblocks. Soon the NFL will prove that a team in London will be well-received and a viable financial opportunity for all those involved. We’re all excited to see it happen.
Would you support the move of an NFL team to London? Can you think of any other arguments against relocating an NFL team there? Please let us know in the comments section below.