NFL is thinking about putting a franchise in London
LONDON — When the NFL first tried establishing an international presence 20 years ago, NFL Europe teams arrived at stadiums to find the goal posts set up in the corners of the end zone rather than in the rear. Fans would passively watch only to scream loudly when the extra point was kicked. The cheerleaders were vastly more popular than the players.
It was almost as if the spectators — and there were a scarce few — were watching a sport that was completely foreign to them, which, of course, they were.
Fast forward to Sunday and the NFL's presence overseas is undeniable. All 86,000 seats in Wembley Stadium sold out within days eight months ago for NFL games between the Steelers and Vikings on Sunday and the 49ers and Jaguars on Oct. 27. Surveys for sports channel Sky Sports show American football is one of the top six or seven most popular sports in the United Kingdom.
And, as players around the NFL are beginning to learn — and fear — London is calling.
It won't be in the next five years. It might not be until after the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2020. But just as the NBA plans to expand to Europe within the next 10 years, as commissioner David Stern estimates, it's not unrealistic that in 2023, the Steelers could be traveling to London again to play the London Jaguars. Or the London Rams. Or the London Raiders. Or, as commissioner Roger Goodell said, “The London Whatever.”
It's not a matter of if London gets a team. It's a matter of when, as owners such as Robert Kraft of the Patriots have acknowledged.
Steelers president Art Rooney II, a member of the league's international committee, told the Tribune-Review there could be three NFL regular-season games in London as early as next year. This is the first year two games are being played there, but they sold out so quickly the league believes the market for three games is already there.
“We're trying to build it,” Rooney said. “There's no definite timetable (for a London franchise), but it certainly is in the active evaluation process now. … We're taking things a step at a time and evaluating as we go.”
Since the NFL has no plans to expand beyond 32 teams and, with Los Angeles already in the hunt for a franchise, it would take an existing franchise to want to move. The Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be the logical choice; they're playing a game a year in London from 2013-16 and their new owner, Pakistani-born billionaire Shahid Khan, also owns Fulham of the English Premier League.
So are the Jaguars taking London for a test drive?
“Whether the Jaguars or some other team are going to be seriously interested in moving here, that's a piece of the puzzle that hasn't been in place yet,” Rooney said. “I can't really speak for the Jaguars. I know they've looked at their options, but that's something they have to make a decision on.”
Rooney added, “It will take a team that's willing to move, and we're not quite there yet, that we have a team that's really seriously interested in that. It's something that's being looked at, so we're still at least a couple of more years away from that being considered.”
Why would the NFL want to transplant a franchise five time zones away from any other in the league? To a continent where the NBA, not the NFL, is the most popular American-based pro sport? To a country where there is one true form of football, the kind that Americans call soccer?
As Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “The NFL is all about making money.”
The NFL is a $10 billion a year business, making it twice the size of the NBA. But don't think the NFL isn't looking enviously at the NBA's estimated $500 million in annual international revenue, or 10 percent of its business. The NFL's international share is far less of its overall revenue, but how would a Tim Tebow jersey sell, for example, if any entire country, not just one city, embraced him?
There is money to be made in London, a city of 8 million — or one so large, it would take only a small percentage of its residents becoming NFL fans to actively support the franchise. The league estimates that of the 63 million UK residents, about two million are interested enough in the NFL to call themselves fans.
And while vast pockets of London know nothing about the Steelers-Vikings game, and care not a whit about it, Roethlisberger said he was surprised during a summertime visit that there were as many Steelers fans as there were, a group called Steeler Nation UK. And even amid the vastness that is Wembley, there are expected to be thousands of twirling Terrible Towels.
But putting a team in London would be far more difficult than shifting one to, for example, Columbus.
Player acquisition would be the a major hurdle; as Steelers safety Ryan Clark said, it's one thing to ask a player to move from San Francisco to Kansas City, but it's an entirely different thing to ask him to relocate not only to a different country but a different continent.
“You would see guys take less money in order to not be in London,” Clark said.
The players union no doubt would demand a separate salary cap and benefits for a London team, since it might be difficult, if not near impossible, to get established players to locate there. If, for example, the Bills must spend nearly $100 million to land Mario Williams in free agency, how much would it cost London for a comparable player?
There are countless other problems, including offseason training (almost certainly based in the USA, not the UK), the taxes on player salaries, work visas for the players, expenses to relocate families and appropriate housing and food.
And there's one Big Ben that wants nothing to do with London.
“I don't know if I can be fined for something I say on my own radio show … but I don't know what player would want to go play over there,” Roethlisberger said over the air. “You'd have to move your family over there. What if you got traded? To me, there's too many issues involved. But knowing the NFL, they'll find a way to make someone's life miserable.”