Why the NFL is still a long way from having a London franchise
“This is definitely if not the, then one of the best stadiums I’ve ever been in my life.”
Those were the words of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr following his team’s 24-21 victory over the Chicago Bears in the first-ever NFL match played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
“Playing at Wembley was really cool, with the memories and all the different games that have been played there,” the Raiders star continued.
“But being able to play here and being able to see what could be done. It’s amazing that they could do all this. First class.”
Being in the stadium a week later to watch the Carolina Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-26 in a hotly-contested AFC South matchup, you could understand Carr’s praise.
While Wembley, and previously Twickenham, have provided fine venues for the NFL’s annual International Series, they had an exhibition-type feel, despite them hosting competitive, regular season matches.
The difference at Tottenham was huge. This felt like a proper NFL stadium.
Having been to the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home to both the New York Giants and Jets, you could tell it was modelled on US stadia and built with American football in mind.
Every detail left both players and coaches alike expressing nothing but positivity. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said: “The amenities in terms of the locker room, the way the locker room is set up, structure as far as the training room, the hydrotherapy room for the guys, it’s top-notch. Whatever they did, they did it right.”
The video, played on the big screen, of the pitch being changed in preparation for the visitors from across the pond underlined the feeling that this state-of-the-art arena has finally given the NFL a home in London.
Over the past five years, talk of London getting its own NFL franchise has only increased. 31 of the 32 teams will have played in London following the end of this season, with the Green Bay Packers the only team yet to do so, and they are likely to make the trip within the next few years.
There are many reasons why British fans should be hopeful that the dream of getting their own team could one day become a reality, with of course the main one being Tottenham’s new stadium.
“I remember running out of that tunnel, I was psyched to play here because it was packed to the brim”– Panthers QB Kyle Allen enjoyed his time in London
However, a stadium is nothing without fans to fill it – and London certainly has them. Both games at Tottenham were sell-outs; every game played in the capital since the first competitive game was played here in 2007 has been at least 90% full, and there are now 47,000 season ticket holders, who purchase tickets to every match played in the city each year.
The strong support certainly didn’t go unnoticed amongst the players, with Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen remarking: “It was a really cool stadium. Packed to the brim. I remember running out of that tunnel, I was psyched to play here because it was packed to the brim, man. Fans were loud, stayed the whole game, rain or shine. It was a good experience.”
This support has led to four games being played in London this year, although it remains to be seen if this level of appetite could be maintained over the eight home games which a franchise would play here.
But one thing which remains without doubt is the appetite for the sport in the UK. Walking to the stadium, you could count jerseys of almost every one of the 32 teams in the league. The vast majority of those in attendance clearly knew their stuff about the sport.
The NFL estimates it has around 13 million fans in the UK, with four million of those described as “avid”. This would suggest there is more than enough interest for a franchise to not only be a success but grow and its stars become household names amongst British sports fans.
Who could move?
However, whilst the city certainly has the fanbase, and now the stadium to boot, there are issues which mean the franchise dream may not be as close to coming to fruition as some supporters hope.
The major reason why it seems some way off is that no owner seems overly keen to relocate their team overseas, at least not imminently.
The NFL has long since ruled out expanding the league – the current format of 32 teams, split into eight divisions of four, works perfectly. There is no space to add one more team, and any expansion efforts would require probably eight new teams to want to join the league at the same time, something not considered realistic.
The only chance for a London franchise would be for a current team to move from their home in America to the UK. The Jacksonville Jaguars seem the most likely of any to make a permanent move across the Atlantic.
Should the NFL decide a London team is a necessity, it would almost certainly be the Chargers it would attempt to move
In 2013, the team agreed to play one home game every year in the British capital, an agreement which runs out in 2020 but is likely to be extended. Their owner Shad Khan also owns Fulham Football Club, and last year attempted to purchase Wembley Stadium, before pulling out after he was advised the Football Association would reject his offer.
While Khan denied the motive behind his bid was to secure a London home for his Jaguars, there can be little doubt that was a factor behind his attempt to buy English football’s HQ.
While for many teams the idea of relocating to another city in America, never mind another country, would be madness, the Jaguars are not one of them. The team joined the league in 1995, but since then have made the playoffs just seven times, and only once since 2008.
So far in 2019, they rank 26th in terms of their average attendance. Relative to other teams in the league, they are a small franchise who are also towards the bottom of the league in terms of financial revenue.
Khan nevertheless seems content with the current arrangement, which allows the Jaguars to build their support in London through playing there every season while continuing to play seven matches in Jacksonville. The team would likely look to increase the number of games played in the capital before making any decision on moving.
The only other team where a strong case for moving to London could be made is the Los Angeles Chargers, who have failed to attract much of a fanbase since their move from San Diego in 2017. They currently play in a 30,000-capacity arena but will move to the 70,000-capacity SoFi Stadium in 2020, which they will share with the LA Rams.
Should the NFL decide a London team is a necessity, it would almost certainly be the Chargers it would attempt to move, although there is no chance of them switching before they have had a few years at their new stadium to see whether they can generate a fanbase in LA.
The other major issue which is yet to be fully worked out is scheduling. The NFL have experimented with having teams play the week after a trip to the UK, but in the majority of cases they are given a bye week.
Mark Waller, the NFL executive vice president of international and events, is optimistic, however: “We’ve proven all the logistical variables now. Last year we played three games on consecutive weekends. That was an important test for us because in the event we ever did have a franchise in London, it’s likely our schedule would be blocks of three or four games, then three or four games over in the States so the team wasn’t travelling every other week.”
This is an important point, given the London franchise would be unlikely to be competitive were they flying back and forth every week. However, the issue of competitiveness remains.
Waller added: “The one thing we can’t ever test for unfortunately is, if you have a team based in London, could it be competitively successful over time when it’s travelling significantly more than any other team?”
Teams in the NFL are used to travelling large distances, such as from east to west coast and vice versa, but they are not making these trips regularly during the season and they are usually spread out across 17 weeks of the campaign. This is clearly an issue the league would need to consider before bringing a team to London.
Another issue would be the play-offs. Were a British franchise to earn a home post-season match, it could be seen as them having an unfair advantage, with the opposing team having to travel such a great distance.
With games likely to be played in blocks of four at home then away, the team would also need to factor in the need for a training base in the US, as they wouldn’t be flying back to London after every away trip.
This could turn into a positive, however, as they would probably be able to attract more players to join the franchise who may have been put off by having to live in a foreign country for half the year, as they’d probably only be there for about two-and-a-half months.
It’s clear London now have a stadium, and they’ve always had the fans, but what is also clear is there are several hurdles that need to be jumped before the city finally lands its own team. But with the success of the London games year-on-year, it looks only a matter of time before a franchise makes the trip for good.
Main photo by Harry Currall