Last month the New England Patriots and the St. Louis Rams traveled to London to play their week 8 match. Though the game took place at Wembley Stadium it was designated a home game for the Rams, which of course gave the Rams a disadvantage, as it means they only get to play 7 true home games this season. Needless to say, they were destroyed by the defending AFC champions and current ambassador team of the National Football League, 45-7. In front of a crowd of over 80,000 no less.
It’s true, American football sells a lot of tickets in England. Whether or not the fact they only get one or two games per year plays into those sellout numbers has yet to even be discussed. Right now, the discussion is all about how excited London mayor Boris Johnson is on the prospect of an increased NFL presence in the city and the nation. There are so many lucrative opportunities for both sides, if commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL owners agree to play more games or even relocate a team to London.
I try not to indulge in the suggested notion that an expansion team be created in London. For one, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue (the man who hand-picked Goodell as his successor) realigned the league ten years ago when the Houston Texans entered the league. Four teams in each of the four divisions of the two conferences. The league is now perfectly organized in terms of divisional play and, as a result, competitive parity. It’s been that way for ten years. Now, more than ever before in the history of the league, the underdog team has a very good chance of toppling the favorite. The point in all of this London talk, however, is that English fans sell out stadiums no matter who is playing. The Jacksonville Jaguars—one of the worst teams in the league—have agreed to play one home game per season at Wembley beginning next year and running through 2016. And they’ll sell out all four games.
Let’s go back to the Rams game though. The Rams are the youngest team in the league, with a young quarterback, and they traveled across six time zones to play a fake home game against the defending AFC champions. What you have with essentially every single game played in London is a situation where both teams are at a disadvantage, with one team carrying decidedly more of the weight by sacrificing a home game. Next year the Jaguars will play the San Francisco 49ers, which will see the latter team traveling across eight time zones.
Personally, I have never been a huge fan of American professional teams playing in such distant locales. I have always understood and sympathized with the fact that having a NFL team in Hawaii would simply be impractical because of the distance, even if it would be really fun having a team in Hawaii. So, the NFL instead staged its annual Pro Bowl game to take advantage of the wanting crowd and the professional amenities of Aloha Stadium.
Still, the NFL has never seriously considered putting a team in Hawaii, and the argument for this has always hinged on the fact that east coast teams like the Patriots and the Dolphins would have to travel 6,000 miles across five time zones to play whichever team called Honolulu home. The disadvantages would be inherent and obvious, and that is why we’ve never seen a permanent team in Hawaii.
But, that’s the old NFL. The new NFL isn’t as concerned with conventional wisdom as the old NFL was. The new NFL plays multiple games per year in London, stages the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl, and grants New Jersey its first Super Bowl—which could very well mean that dubious weather creates an inherent disadvantage in the biggest game of the year. If you hadn’t noticed it before, the reason why the Super Bowl is often played in places like Arizona, New Orleans, and Miami is because of predictable weather (domes, for instance) as well as accessibility. The Rose Bowl has hosted five Super Bowls because it’s huge, is surrounded by freeways, and is in southern California. The idea was to always stage the championship game in an environment that relieved the inherently-hectic nature of the game by being accessible, and allowed the two competing teams to play without any outside hindrance.
The NFL doesn’t care about those kinds of things, though. If it rains during Super Bowl XLVIII then the game will be played in the rain. Players will slip and catches will be dropped. Those watching at home will complain that the weather complicates the game and those sitting in the stadium—in their very expensive seats—will have to sit in the cold weather and tough it out. The new NFL doesn’t seem to care about the things around a game that might diminish the quality thereof.
It’s almost as if Roger Goodell hasn’t had enough controversy. He is seriously considering putting a team in London, and as mayor Boris Johnson has routinely pointed out there sits a brand new $780 million stadium constructed for this year’s Olympics that currently sits without a permanent tenant.
The problem, of course, goes right back to the fact that no matter who plays in London there will always be huge disadvantages inherently built into every game. If Goodell ever manages to actually locate a permanent team in London then he’ll have created a situation for cyclical losing that will make the Browns look like the Steelers. It’s often suggested that the reason teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Angels attract so many free agents is because people want to play in L.A. It’s sunny year-round, and there is always something to do when you’re not fulfilling your million-dollar contract on the field (or court). Likewise, New York is the epicenter of American sports and the capital of the western world. They’re like the anti-Clevelands.
Well then, what happens when a London-based team is trying to attract free agents? Whether it’s an expansion team or the Jaguars (who are the likeliest team to relocate anyway) the situation will be perpetual losing for years. The only way to turn it around will be by attracting quality free agents and building through the draft. So, the question must be asked: Who would choose to play in London and deal with never-ending jet lag unless it was for a gigantic contract?
Judging by any measure of NFL history a team based in London would only be able to attract players by throwing heaps of money at them, and that certainly isn’t how any of the recently successful teams have built their empires. More often than not a NFL team will try and compensate for its lack of dedicated infrastructure by signing a free agent (think Nnamdi Asomugha on the Eagles and Mario Williams on the Bills).
Or maybe they opt to build through the draft, like a good team with a solid future would. But wait… remember when Eli Manning was going to be drafted no. 1 overall by the San Diego Chargers and publicly stated he would not sign a contract with them? Remember when they traded him to the Giants on draft day for Philip Rivers? And San Diego is just as sunny as Los Angeles. It’s also a hell of a lot closer to everyone else than London. Manning likely made that decision with advice from his father, who must have known that San Diego is not a serious franchise; and how could they be with Norv Turner in his fifth year coaching the team?
What happens when a team based in London has to trade its top pick because some kid who grew up in Orange County and played for USC doesn’t want to waste his prime playing in wet and distant London? What does the league do when this happens each and every year?
What happens when said team tries to compensate for it by throwing too much money at guys who don’t warrant it (think Charles Johnson on the Panthers and Kevin Kolb on the Cardinals)? While we’re at it, what happens when both occur; when too much money is given to a rookie who doesn’t deserve it? Sam Bradford’s contract pays him four times what Aaron Rodgers gets paid.
What happens when either the Jaguars or the even-worse situation of a 33rd NFL franchise descend into a permanent abyss where the misfortunes of the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Browns, and Orlando Magic are rolled into one ugly football franchise? Permanently woven into the fabric of a team that will, by definition, be one of the most valuable franchises in the world…
To the new NFL none of it will matter. Because the games will sell out, won’t they? No one’s really asking that question. No one’s asking any of these questions. England has a very old, very legitimate, and very competitive soccer league. It would be a stretch to think that Londoners will continue to shell out NFL prices for a team that they know will never be good. Certainly, English fans who don’t live in or near London won’t make the long drive to watch such a pointless event every Sunday.
Remember when NBC was criticized last Summer for deciding not to air the games live? The reason they made that decision was because England is five hours ahead of New York and eight hours ahead of Los Angeles. If a game takes place on Sunday morning in London then it would be aired livebetween 2-5 AM in the United States. If it takes place at night (which is usually the most viewed game of the day for the league) then it would be airing at noon here. What happens if NBC or Fox or CBS or ESPN decide to air a tape delay of the game? They’d have to if they want to get max ratings.
The worst scenario would be a London-based team entering that whirlpool of suck and failing to sell out games. It’s entirely possible to the point of being entirely probable, and it would result in blacked-out games on television. At that point it will be as if the team doesn’t even exist.
It’s sort of the perfect storm for failure, and I’m just as surprised that Roger Goodell doesn’t see it as I am that the national media doesn’t either. The last thing this bursting league needs is a humbling moment like that; where a football franchise becomes unprofitable. Lest we forget that even the lowly Jaguars (the least valuable team in the NFL) are worth more than every NBA team not named the Lakers or Knicks.
I don’t see it happening, but then again it’s Roger Goodell. He has a way of getting his way at the detriment of the league. Just don’t act surprised if and when it happens, and certainly don’t act surprised when the team is absolutely abysmal for years to come.