Thursday, February 20, 2014
Inside Slant: Inevitability of NFL London
By Kevin Seifert
The momentum seemed clear back in September, as the NFL geared up for its first doubleheader of regular-season games in London. "It's quite likely," wrote ESPN.com's Greg Garber, "that there soon will be an NFL team in London."
Events of the ensuing 5 1/2 months have fortified that assessment. The NFL quickly sold out all three London-based games for the 2014 season, an accomplishment notably lauded by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Most recently, one of the league's most influential and revenue-hungry owners has thrust his full support behind the idea.
Stars like Adrian Peterson have helped the NFL as a consistently popular draw in London.
Speaking in a radio interview last week, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said: "I think that's very possible. Yes, I'm very much for it. I think there's a good chance, and these games will be a good indication of the kind of support we can have there. And London is one of the few cities outside of the United States that would be a great city internationally for the NFL."
As with any major corporation, the best approach to observing the modern NFL is to follow the money. If a venture can generate significant new revenues, without debilitating logistical roadblocks or obvious brand-tarnishing repercussions, you can bet it will get a long look. Increasingly, it's clear that the semantics of a London franchise -- while significant -- probably won't scare off the NFL.
"The response to the third game in the UK and the way that the fans have embraced that -- sold that out in such a short period of time -- is just another indication that the more we give fans in the UK of NFL football, the more they want," Goodell said last month. "That's a great tribute to the fans there and their passion. And I believe you are further down the road because you are now three games into it. What our next step is, I don't know. That's something we're going to have to evaluate. We believe that we will continue to grow there and that's going to take work. We're going to have to continue to invest in that marketplace and find ways to engage those fans even more deeply. I'm optimistic that they'll respond favorably, as they already have."
Informal discussions have already provided a framework for how the most significant logistical issues with a London franchise would be addressed. Let's run through most of them.
The team likely would have a stateside training facility, where it could base itself during two- or three-game "road trips" that would cut down on travel.
Four trans-Atlantic flights to the East Coast for a London team would add up to roughly 28,000 miles in a season -- about 6,000 fewer than the San Francisco 49ers traveled in 2013. A London team would tack on additional miles for Midwest or West Coast games, but in the end, its travel would be only incrementally more than what the NFL's most frequent fliers have already done. Meanwhile, teams who visit London could be ensured a bye afterward.
Tax issues and cost of living discrepancies could be addressed in collective bargaining with the NFL Players Association. Or, the NFL could point to the differences that already exist stateside, where cost of living varies considerably and some teams are based in cities with no state income tax.
Some have suggested free agents might not want to sign with a London team, whether for displacement reasons or what will be perceived to be a hectic travel schedule. That might be the case, but would it truly be debilitating to the franchise? The majority of NFL players are assigned teams via the draft or waivers, and the best players never reach free agency. Regardless, the track record of teams that spend big to sign players -- see the 2013 Miami Dolphins, for one -- is spotty.
And what's the worst-case scenario? A London-based team can't compete. Quite frankly, that has happened for long stretches of the NFL's stateside history, be it in Detroit, Oakland, Cleveland or elsewhere. Collectively, those franchises still have contributed to the NFL's financial growth, as would a London team, regardless of its success on the field.
Generally speaking, it's difficult to see the NFL passing on the presumed revenue bonanza of a London franchise for logistical reasons. There is always a way.