Tuesday, July 22, 2014
How to Do an NFL Team in London
The National Football League is unique among major North American sports leagues: it's only in the United States. The NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS all have a team in Toronto. A small part of me has always liked that about the NFL, that "National" isn't a misnomer. But that semantic strength is a practical weakness: the NFL's reach is largely limited to the USA. It's by far the most popular sports league in the country, but internationally, it's less popular than basketball, hockey, baseball, and soccer. There are multiple reasons for that, but you could start with the "national" limitation.
In October 2005, the NFL held its first regular-season game outside the United States, at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca. London's Wembley Stadium hosted a regular-season game every season from 2007-12, then two games in 2013 and going forward. The Buffalo Bills played one "home" game at Toronto's Rogers Centre from 2008-13. While Toronto is the closest geographically and might seem like the best fit, the Canadian Football League and the Toronto Argonauts in particular represent competition, and the Canadian market is already more accessible than the Mexican and British markets.
It's been clear for a couple years now that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants a team based in London. Mr. Goodell explicitly said as much last week, but it's a puzzling priority for numerous reasons. The league is already incredibly successful, and moving a team across the Atlantic Ocean might be a fix for something that isn't really broken. There are a number of domestic markets that can support pro sports teams but don't host an NFL franchise — most notably Los Angeles. And of course, there are international alternatives like Toronto and Mexico City, both of which are not only closer but in accessible time zones. I'm sure the NFL has research showing that London will bring the most new fans, or at least the most money, but holy crap, there's not a team in L.A. Twenty years ago there were two.
Part of the reason to prefer Los Angeles (or another U.S. market) is legal practicality. Kristi Dosh wrote a piece for ESPN outlining some of the potential problems with putting a team in London, including tax laws and work visas. The short version is, players on a London team would pay higher taxes than anywhere in the U.S., and some players might not be able to get the necessary visas.
The most interesting problem, to me, is travel. England is five time zones from the East Coast, eight hours difference from the Pacific Time Zone. London is almost halfway around the world from San Diego or Seattle. The NFL has always scheduled a bye for teams returning from the International Series at Wembley Stadium, recognizing that such long trips and such significant time differences are hard on players. Assuming we do get a team in London in the near future, how would the schedule work? Brian Billick suggested two three-week road trips and one two-week trip, and I suppose that's more realistic than my idea.
But the plan that makes the most sense to me involves a permanent practice facility somewhere in the United States. The London team — let's call them the Jaguars (but pronounced the British way, Jag-you-ahrs) — would begin the season with four road games in the U.S., followed by all eight home games, then four more on the road to finish out the season.
That gives the Jags just three trans-Atlantic flights during the regular season, which is do-able with the bye. And since home games in England wouldn't begin until Week 5 or 6, visiting teams could always have a bye for their trips overseas, just like they do in the existing NFL International Series. For the London team, though, I would suggest that the bye come after that first road trip. It's apparent at this point that West-to-East travel is harder on athletes than the other way around. So a hypothetical schedule might look like this:
Week 1: ROAD
Week 2: ROAD
Week 3: ROAD
Week 4: ROAD
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: HOME
Week 7: HOME
Week 8: HOME
Week 9: HOME
Week 10: HOME
Week 11: HOME
Week 12: HOME
Week 13: HOME
Week 14: ROAD
Week 15: ROAD
Week 16: ROAD
Week 17: ROAD
Of course, this assumes the league puts a team in London before it forces through an 18-game regular season. But that's another issue.