With tickets for next season's 2 NFL games at Wembley next year going on sale this week, the topic of a UK franchise is one that continues to dominate discussion around the NFL. Roger Goodell is very much for a UK franchise, with many of the owners such as Robert Kraft of the Patriots, also declaring that they'd like to see an NFL franchise in the UK.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle stated on the TM Football UK podcast this week, that the idea of not just 1 but 2 franchises could be an option that would be looked at by the NFL. This would look at having one team playing in the Wembley stadium, and another in the Olympic stadium. This would bring a rivalry in London straight away, but this would seem unlikely at this stage with even the thought of 1 NFL franchise in London being hard for people to comprehend.
However, before an NFL franchise is considered in London, many believe that a franchise in the city of LA is a much more pressing issue. With the LA City Council approving the construction of an NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles, the question is whether this will be part of an expansion in the NFL, or a team being relocated. The first team that would come to mind when the subject of relocation comes up, would be the Jacksonville Jaguars. With new owner Shahid Khan agreeing for the Jaguars to play a home game in Wembley for the next 4 years, the onus seems to be that Khan is considering relocating the Jaguars.
With the Jaguars struggling to sell out their home games consistently, a relocation to either LA or London could be an option. With the Jaguars being a relatively new franchise, only forming in 1995, there was always going to be a problem for them to establish themselves in a state where there’s also the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins. The only other state to have 3 NFL franchises is California, but with no franchise in LA, there would still be room for a 4th and 5th team. With LA already a big sporting city with the LA Dodgers and LA Lakers to go with the LA Kings, it does seem as if there’s a big gap in LA for a football team.
But moving back to the idea of a London franchise, there’s clearly a lot of people in NFL who want this to happen. In the UK NFL is very popular with NFL Sunday night football a must for football fans. The growing popularity of the NFL in the UK is shown with the fact that there are at least 4 games a week, with many going into the early hours, and yet many (including myself) are willing to stay up for them because of their love for football.
But why would an NFL franchise in the UK being considered? Many point to the fact that the NFL is so popular in the UK because the standard of football in the UK is so poor, and not getting much publicity at all. But is this really the right step for the NFL? With 2 games being played at Wembley next season for the first time, of course talk of a UK franchise will rise. But there would be many problems to overcome if this was to become reality. First issue of course would be traveling. With one side from the US having to travel to the UK at least every 2 weeks, how much could this affect the side or give them a disadvantage when you consider the time difference and potential jet lag. Looking at it the other way, the side from the UK would have to travel a maximum of 11 hours if they were to play a game against the 49ers. This would clearly give the UK side a disadvantage before the game had even started.
It wouldn’t be as bad if a side from the east coast was traveling to the UK, or vice versa, but this would still be pointed at as issue for any side who’d have to play in London. The fact that the two sides who played this year at Wembley, the Rams & Patriots, had a bye week after their match may be a way of getting around it, with teams after playing in London having a week off afterwards, but also if a London side had to play on the West coast, they’d get a bye the next week also. Very complicated.
So that’s travel discussed, now there’s another issue to deal with. The draft system. Are rookies who have lived in America their whole lives, really going to want to move to the UK? Or would the NFL make the London franchise pick players up just from the UK, therefore limiting the quality they’d be able to acquire, which would be a big disadvantage for a young franchise. It could therefore mean that the London franchise can’t be competitive against even the worst of teams in the NFL, which wouldn’t be a pretty spectacle for fans of that side. But who knows, maybe American athletes would like the idea of playing in the UK, in what would be unprecedented. In soccer, players from other countries travel across the world to play soccer, so why can’t the same apply to the NFL?
These are all big problems that would need to be addressed, not to mention the fact that any franchise opportunities in the US would have to be looked at first, with an LA franchise looking more and more likely, with teams having to apply early in 2013 if they wish to relocate to LA. But for me personally, the problem would be getting hardcore supporters of a London side. Nearly everyone who follows the NFL in the UK and is a fan of the league, has their own side which they follow, with many people having a loyalty to this side having followed them for years. So if a side was to turn up in London, would the people who supported teams based in the US, suddenly switch their allegiance to that side? I don’t think so.
For the game at Wembley this season between the Patriots and the Rams, the amount of Patriots fans over Rams fans was obvious. There were also thousands of neutrals, who were going to the game simply as a one off event, with thousands of others wearing other teams jerseys, with these fans just relishing the opportunity to see some live football. This is no doubt due to the fact that the Patriots have been a very successful team in the last 12 years, with 3 Super Bowl wins, whereas the Rams last won a Super Bowl in 1999, which is their one and only win. It’s no surprise then that there aren’t as many Rams fans in the UK as Patriots. This leads on to the idea that Shahid Khan wants to build a fanbase in the UK. Even though they’re playing 4 home games in the next 4 years, are people really going to start supporting the Jags, who are one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. With not much going for this side, it’ll be hard for previous neutrals to suddenly start supporting the Jags, although I suspect that there will be some people who will.
If you ask most people in the UK why they support the team they do, the reasons are usually down to a certain side being successful in a time period, or because of a particular player which that person followed at the time. As a Giants fan, if a team came over to London as either a brand new side or as a relocated side, I would still support the Giants over that side. I would however probably look to go to games in London whenever I was able to. As a keen soccer fan and Chelsea season ticket holder, for me that would always take priority, as I suspect most people would who support a London based soccer team.
So with all these potential issues to overcome, there are question marks over whether the NFL franchise in the UK will actually become reality. It’s a topic that has split opinion in the US. Roger Goodell says that a UK team would help to expand the brand of the NFL, but do fans of teams in the US really care about this? I’d put good money on the fact that they’d rather keep the league to teams based in America. But it’s clear that the NFL is plotting this move, and the league wouldn’t just have 2 games in the season unless it was part of a future expansion plan.
With tickets for the 2 regular season games going on sale on Thursday, it will be interesting to see how the sales go. In my opinion, if there’s ever going to be a UK side, the next step would be to have the Super Bowl hosted in the UK. This may be too much for some fans in the US, as this is one of the biggest events of the US sports calendar, and to have this taken away from the home of football, would make some fans angry. It remains to be seen whether this franchise comes to reality, but with many leading names in NFL seemingly wanting it, including the commissioner Roger Goodell, you’d put good money on Goodell finding solutions to these problems and making this prospect a reality.