Over the last several years, a single game each year has been played in Wembley Stadium in order to attract attention to the NFL in the UK. As Mike Florio recently pointed out, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after this season will now have played in London twice, and are the likely team to move to London if sales cannot improve in Tampa. The NFL seems committed to increasing the popularity of the NFL in the UK, but the only logical way the NFL can ever really enter the UK market is if they take a chance and launch a team in London. The question is: could this team be successful? I believe the answer is yes, and for the following reasons:
1. NFL is getting more popular…
I have been in London for the past year, and can say that during a regular week, there was not much in the way of attention for the NFL. A lot of this has to do with the fact that there’s a 5 hour time difference (you try being awake until 4am to watch Monday Night Football). For the Super Bowl, however, a record 3.5 million Brits tuned in to watch it, or nearly one-in-17 people on the Isles. Considering this is a sport that has no professional level in their own country, this is pretty impressive. On Super Bowl Sunday, bars were packed, reservations filled (I missed out on several places), and overpriced beer served (feels like home, only more expensive and no Bud Light).
2. …Especially among the youth
As for the youth, it’s part of growing up in a culture that is significantly impacted by the culture in the US. I was an assistant coach at my university in Brunel, and most of the kids who came to practice already had a favorite team, with many watching games when they could, even those who had never played football before nor knew all of the rules. This is not just 4 or 5 kids either, but dozens. Even more kids outside of the team knew the sport and had a favorite team, Many still view the game as ‘boring’ or a ‘sad version of rugby’ (which I will not dignify with a response), but if they had their own team based in London who played at a time that made it easier to watch games, I am sure that the team would being to build a fanbase that would be worthy of the sport.
3. London is a huge city
This one is rather simple. The city of Tampa has a little over 300,000 people, and nearing 4 million people in it’s metro area. London’s metro area population is triple that, and still growing. Even if the sport is not as popular as it is in Tampa, they’re still very likely to sell out games at Wembley (the likely home stadium for any NFL team). Sold out games means better atmosphere, better television, and in turn better ratings as more people turn in to see the team. London is a HUGE market, and would be second in size only to New York, which is split by two successful franchises.
There would still be many issues to work out, most notably the schedule. The London team would have to spend large chunks of time in the US and hence would need a practice area and accommodations in the US. How US teams would travel to London on a regular basis would need to be figured out, and the NFLPA might have a thing or two to say about all of this. Regardless, I believe it is a move that could be worth the NFL’s time and should be seriously considered.
Edit: Cole I’d like to add some input here as well. My caveat is that I have never been to London, or Europe for that matter. I do, however, realize how important soccer is to most of the rest of the world (I’m a Chelsea fan myself). These are two sports that overlap (soccer has already started its season) and the interest level in football during the week is limited because of it. To me, taking an NFL team to London would be the equivalent of putting an NBA franchise in a city that is a very football oriented town here in America. That doesn’t mean that NFL in Europe cannot be successful. For that to be the case, they cannot simply send one team over. As many of you know, I frequently advocate for expansion of the NFL. I feel that the college football ranks are strong enough to field several more teams, as well as CFL, AFL, and UFL. They tried a minor league in Europe without much success, so if they branch out they must do it at the professional level. I would reformat most of the divisions to feature 5 teams each while adding 5 teams in Europe. With a 16 game schedule, that’s 10 games vs division opponents. That means only 5 games in which European sides have to travel to the US and US teams travel to Europe. With 8 divisions (7 that need an extra team in this format), 2 more additional teams would have to be created at home. I think Canada can be another place to expand, potential Mexico, but absolutely Los Angeles. I understand the arguments against such aggressive expansion. The quality of the game will diminish over the short term, but I think it will also breed more innovation and creativity in terms of teams attempting to execute an effective offense without, maybe, the best personnel. Yes, Europe is a large market that the NFL would love to tap into, but unless they can find a way to really engage Europe, and not simply add a team as a novelty act, I cannot see a team lingering there for long.