In Focus: Could London sustain an NFL franchise?
By Neil Hawkins
It was originally billed as a 15-year project with the aim of having a fully established franchise based in London by 2022. Now nine years into the plan, and with Wembley Stadium about to host the next set of NFL International Series matches, it’s looking increasingly likely America’s national game will soon have a team with a distinctively British identity.
What started as an international gamble, when the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins played the first game at Wembley in 2007, has become one of the shrewdest business moves in modern sport. One game a season became two, then three, and now the NFL has deals in place to use three London-based stadiums in the coming years.
Twickenham will host at least three games a season over a three-year deal starting in October, and Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium will play host to at least two games a season from 2018 over a ten-year period.
Undoubtedly the appetite is there from the British public. International matches over the years have consistently sold out. Around 40,000 fans have bought ‘season tickets’ for all three London games this year. One visit to any of the games this year and you’ll see fans sporting every single one of the 32 NFL teams’ jerseys.
But could fans’ loyalties to other teams be a stumbling block to a UK team having a dedicated fan base? How likely is a supporter, who has followed the New Orleans Saints for 20 years, to switch allegiances and buy a UK team season ticket and jersey?
UCFB lecturer Deepak Trivedi is an international sport consultant and an expert in the American sport market, previously working with the NFL, as well as the NBA and US Open. He said it’s difficult to really know how support would play out for a UK based team until it becomes a reality.
He commented: “Fan loyalty is an interesting conundrum and we are yet to see how fan motivations will affect behaviour in the way in which they may consume games from a regular team and how they place their loyalties. Whilst the true outcome remains unknown, what does remain consistently high is the willingness of UK fans to adopt this US sport.”
Jacksonville Jaguars have long been touted as the team most likely to move across the pond, having been a designated ‘home team’ since 2013 and with a deal in place to remain so until at least 2020. However, Jags owner Shahid Khan has said he has no plans to relocate the Florida based team.
The tried and tested American method of a team uprooting from a city and relocating hundreds of miles away makes a London team feasible. Others that have been mentioned for a potential move to the UK include the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Both were unsuccessful in their recent attempts to relocate to Los Angeles, which saw the St. Louis Rams head back to their original home after 20 years in Missouri.
A London franchise couldn’t happen before Los Angeles had a team once again. After all, how can Hollywood and one of the largest populations in America not be home to an NFL franchise? Now over that hurdle the path is clear for London.
But where would the team play, and how can it work logistically? The American format of alternative home and away games could effectively see a London team play in San Francisco and Seattle either side of a UK game. Consistent flights across the Atlantic and the effects of jetlag will take it out of any athlete.
Wembley has been an unprecedented success, but is there room in a busy stadium calendar for at least eight weekends between September and January? The Football Association would undoubtedly welcome the extra income. Twickenham is highly unlikely, and the RFU have broken tradition as it is by chasing a quick buck with their short term deal.
The most likely scenario is the new White Hart Lane. The 61,000 seater stadium would be the smallest in the NFL, but has been designed to include a retractable artificial pitch specifically with gridiron in mind. Tottenham and the NFL worked together to design the stadium, which includes dressing rooms large enough for an American football team’s entourage.
NFL chiefs have previously said the White Hart Lane deal is as significant as the original Wembley one, and Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has gone on record saying he wants the stadium to be the home of an NFL franchise. The dedicated NFL facility would also allow a team to have a permanent base that would feel like ‘home’.
Deepak, who’s also a representative on the diversity and inclusion task force for the United States Tennis Association, said: “While the marketing teams at the NFL have done a tremendous job in influencing fan behaviour in the UK, a big question mark hangs over how successful having an NFL facility in London would be. Will the players embrace this new home and location, and would it really ‘feel’ like home?
“Some suggest the popularity of the NFL in London is due to having a handful of games in London each year, others say that fans and consumers of sport are adopting the American sport culture showcased by the NFL.”
The biggest issue, which shamefully isn’t being raised as a concern, is the life-changing effect a move would have for the American-based players and supporters. Despite the untold riches bestowed upon NFL professionals, is it fair to tell a player that when they return for pre-season training it’ll be in London and not sunny San Diego? What does the player, who has two children in a top Californian school, do? But a move to the UK would hurt American fans the most. Even the most dedicated Chargers fan isn’t going to follow his team to London. In its current format, the International Series sees three teams give up a home game to play in London, leaving thousands of American fans short changed.
Deepak says not upsetting a dedicated US fan base is key to any potential franchise relocation. He said: “Whatever is done in the UK needs to be thoughtfully and carefully planned. The NFL do not want to upset the US fan base, and season ticket holders will not want to miss out on any more games than are now already being played overseas.”
American football, despite its worldwide appeal and ability to print money, is still a very insular sport. NFL bosses are desperate to take their product abroad and give it a global footprint. A regular season game is also scheduled for Mexico this season, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Germany could soon play host to an International Series game.
Other sports are following suit too as the appetite for American sport is big in the UK. The NBA has a regular season game at the O2 Arena in London, and talks are progressing about bringing Major League Baseball to the capital and potentially the Olympic Stadium.
The NFL though have led the way from the start, and it seems it’s now only a matter of when, not if, London becomes home to another kind of football.