Is London ready for some (American) football? The NFL appears to think so.
Comments in the off-season from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who described a London NFL franchise as a “realistic” prospect, and public support from the league’s powerful owners, indicate a decisive shift taking place, in which an idea is starting to turn into a reality.
If the NFL has not quite “pushed the button” on launching its first international franchise, the Commissioner’s finger is hovering above it.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks clearly visible progress has been made on the potential new home of a London NFL team, with Spurs’ spectacular new stadium finally starting to emerge from the ground.
The sense of momentum was crystallized in a report last week by CBS “insider” Jason LaCanfora, who stated that a London franchise was a “major topic of conversation” in a meeting of NFL owners in late May.
According to LaCanfora, Mike Waller, the NFL executive in charge of international matters, gave owners a “detailed progress report and presentation” which “led many teams to come away more convinced than ever that this is something (the NFL) very much wants to happen.”
The presentation detailed concerns over timing and travel requirements for playoff games, particularly if a London franchise drew a team on the US west coast.
LaCanfora connected the dots:
“Yes, that’s how far down the line the NFL is in addressing London contingencies, and these are the types of things owners are being asked to consider as further preparations are made toward moving a team to England.”
Crucial to any forward progress for a London team was finally sorting out a franchise for Los Angeles. The league couldn’t seriously move ahead with a franchise in London before placing one in the USA’s second-largest media market. This anomaly was rectified in January when it was announced that the Rams would be moving from St Louis to LA.
(There is no pretty way to move a franchise, and the people of St Louis were royally screwed. The outrage if a team is taken from a US city overseas will be even more vociferous.)
With this resolved, attention at the league’s Annual Meeting in Florida in late March could turn to other things. Judging by the comments by owners, it is clear that London was a topic of conversation. I counted four owners — the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots — who discussed London in positive terms with reporters.
Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner who is considered one of the most influential in the league, was asked by SI’s Peter King where was “next” after LA.
Jones replied: “We don’t get many opportunities to say “this is what we give back to fans, this is a wow”. Los Angeles was that. What else could we do that with? London looks like that to me.”
Jones also mentioned Mexico City, which will host its first regular season game next season, as a possible destination.
The importance of these comments can’t be stressed enough given how decisions are made in the league. It is the 32 owners who will ultimately decide on a London franchise.
A few days later, at a townhall meeting with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Goodell stated, clearly, that he felt London was ready for a franchise.
“As a market, I believe they (London) can support a franchise,” he said.
“I actually believe that a franchise in London is realistic.”
According to Goodell, his concern was ensuring a London team wasn’t at a competitive disadvantage due to logistical issues such as flight times and scheduling.
“I think we can find solutions to those issues,” Goodell said. “The way we schedule and the way we do things, those are things we’re still focused on.”
I don’t think the importance of these comments can be stressed enough. Before a franchise is placed in London, the league has to be comfortable with several pivotal things:
- The London market can support an NFL franchise
- A London franchise has a stadium to play in
- There is a suitable candidate for relocation to London, or viable plans for expansion
- US broadcasters are happy (London games would never be played in primetime Sunday, Monday or Thursday evening slots)
- A London team, with logistical issues, would be competitive and schedule integrity would not be affected
Stating that the London market is ready for a full-time franchise is a HUGE statement, as without it, the rest is moot. Again, if the question now is the brasstacks of how the games are scheduled, then it is hard to argue against the idea that we are “almost there”.
If the market was the most important, second is the stadium. An NFL standard facility is required, and Spurs are delivering it. The Spurs stadium will feature a retractable pitch as well as NFL-size locker rooms and media facilities.
Huge steps have been taken by Spurs in the past few months in terms of receiving key permissions and commencing full-scale construction.
The NFL is in regular contact with Spurs and feels fully engaged in the stadium construction process, an NFL UK source told this blog. The relationship was characterised as “excellent” and “ongoing”.
(And yes, if this had been “terrible” and “dead in the water”, I might have a story)
A couple of weeks after Goodell’s comments, ESPN ran a long primer discussing the remaining hurdles for London — for example whether an expansion or a relocation was more likely, the issues facing players, and logistical matters. It is worth a read.
The final comment from an unnamed team executive summed up the mood:
“It’s one of those things where I know all the problems,” said the team executive. “But one of the things you learn in this league is it doesn’t matter what the problems are, you better figure them out because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, tough crap.”
The setting for Goodell’s comments was interesting, given the Jaguars are widely assumed to be the most likely franchise to move to London. Goodell tweaked the franchise, stating the growth of the market in northeast Florida was “below expectation.” Another contender is the Oakland Raiders, although a move for them to Las Vegas seems more likely.
The “magic date” (albeit never an official target) for an NFL franchise has always been 2022. In January, Mike Waller was quoted as saying by the BBC that plans were “on track” for a London team by this date. In my Q&A with Sky Sports NFL presenter Neil Reynolds, he said 2022 was “very realistic”.
Is the league on course for 2022? It would seem so. Judging by the comments from owners in recent months, London is at the forefront of their thoughts and discussions. I can’t recall an owner trashing the idea of a London franchise, or at least not in recent years. (Please point out these comments if they do exist, I’m interested to learn)
“Pushing the button” on an NFL franchise in London doesn’t mean it will materialise overnight. Instead, it will trigger the start of an ignition sequence preparing for launch to the next footballing frontier.
If the NFL put it to a vote and announced the establishment of a London franchise by the time of its next Annual Meeting in 2017, that would give the league five seasons to launch in time for 2022/23. Five years to build the hype, five years to find a team, five years to resolve any lingering logistical issues, five years to experiment with new timeslots in London that appeal to US broadcasters.
I’m biased on this because I’m a huge NFL fan and would love to see a team in London. The fact that it would most likely use New White Hart Lane as its home only adds to the appeal.
But I’m pretty sure that interest would grow rapidly across the Spurs fan base and beyond once a London team was announced and became “real”. To quote Buddy Garrity in Friday Night Lights, everybody loves football, they just don’t know it yet.
If the league hasn’t formally decided on bringing the NFL to London on a permanent basis, it is getting close to the point of no return regardless.
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