The writer attended NFL games at Wembley in 2007 and 2013 (pictured below, when the Steelers beat the Vikings 34-27 in a thrilling finish)
Whilst there has been some fevered speculation on the subject over the years since the first regular season NFL game was held at Wembley in 2007, and there has been mention from NFL bigwigs of a London-based franchise by 2022, there are many significant issues that such a venture would need to overcome.
- Re-locating the players and coaches to London. The NFL regular season may only comprise 16 games, but with training camps starting in July and 4 pre-season games in August, any London-based team would need to transplant its players and coaches from the US to the UK for a minimum of 6 months each year. How easy would it be for a London franchise to keep their players and coaches happy when they are away from their friends and family for such a significant chunk of time? How high would the turnover of players and coaches be at such a Franchise? Can you imagine many players committing themselves to long-term, multi-year deals in a foreign country that, for all the talk of the ‘Special Relationship’, will still be a culture shock from what they are used to back home?
- The travel distance to each away game. Whilst NFL players are used to flying to each away game, how would upwards of ten (including pre-season) 4,000+ mile flights per season affect the players’ minds and bodies, their preparation time for each game, and their recovery time from their previous game?
- Recruiting college players, coaches and free agents. Most NFL players dream of playing for one of the Marquee Franchises. The Patriots, the Cowboys, the Redskins etc. It’s difficult enough for less prestigious teams such as the Cleveland Browns to get players fresh out of college to sign on the dotted line, but what if that team was based 3,500 miles from their nearest NFL rival? Would the ‘British Bulldogs’, or whatever moniker a London-based NFL team ends up being known by, find it easy to sign promising young players straight out of college, coaches looking for their next NFL gig, or a sought-after free agent? It seems unlikely.
- Is there the demand from existing UK NFL fans for a London Franchise? Having been to a couple of NFL Wembley games, including the first one in 2007, one thing is obvious. The vast majority of NFL fans in the UK already have a team that they root for, as can be seen from the wide variety of replica shirts being worn in the stands at the Wembley games. Most of the existing 32 teams are represented in the stands, hell even the odd Browns fan can be spotted! Will a London-based franchise win over their affections, ahead of their existing team, which they may have already followed for anything from a few months to 30+ years? Or will they become their second team, and if so will the fans be willing to spend their pounds going along to support them, once the novelty of having an NFL team in London has worn off? Similarly whilst the Wembley games have regularly sold out and have enjoyed something of a carnival atmosphere, when the number of games is upped from 3 a year to 8, will the demand still be there? With a London team coming about either as a new expansion team, or more likely a relocated and re-named struggling Franchise from a small market, such as the Jaguars, Panthers, Bills etc., a London-based team is very likely to have a tough time of it for their first few seasons. Will the fans still turn up after a couple of 2-14 or 3-13 years?
- NFL’s status in the UK and the lack of media coverage. For all of the work done by the NFL in recent years, the increased support shown by the BBC, and the long-standing coverage on Sky Sports, American Football remains a minority sport in the UK. For a London Franchise to be sustainable it will need more than the support of a couple of hundred thousand hardcore followers, that subscribe to Sky Sports, pay for NFL Gamepass, and that may have been following the sport since the days of Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach on Channel 4. The NFL will need to bring in a new generation of fans to add to and eventually replace their existing, rather middle-aged UK fanbase. With only the Wembley games and the Superbowl currently being shown live on UK terrestrial TV each year, how will they introduce these youngsters to the sport and then hook them on it for life? One could add that Cricket, Rugby League and Golf have as little or even less live terrestrial TV coverage than the NFL, but they are three sports that have been woven into the fabric of British society for well over a hundred years each, and in any case the lack of live, ‘free to air’ coverage for a sport such as cricket has had an obviously damaging effect over the past decade, as the sport has slowly but surely lost its place in the British public’s consciousness. As for newspapers and radio, when was the last time you read an NFL story on the back pages of a British paper, or heard an NFL phone-in on the radio?
For all of these reasons and others I remain sceptical of whether a London-based NFL franchise will ever be more than just a pipedream, and even if one does come to fruition over the next decade, whether it can be successful. However I would love to be proved wrong.