NFL in Europe Vs NFL Europe

With the success of the annual NFL games in Wembley, there has been much talk about the league establishing a permanent franchise in London, talk that has been reinforced by the considerably influential Robert Kraft, the owner of the successful New England Patriots. Sorry NFL, but this is a bad idea. Seeing the impressive Wembley Stadium packed to the rafters with European football fans has no doubt got the number crunchers salivating, but bear in mind that there are a number of factors that realistically rule out the possibility, as you can’t base this idea on one-off game, but there is an alternative. Read on:

The European Fanbase:
If the NFL types actually took the time to mingle with the fans at any of these London games, they would notice, for example, that there are probably 32 different NFL jerseys on display throughout the 80,000 fans or so. This is because European NFL supporters already have favorite teams, and many have followed them for 30 years or more. While a new franchise would be a novelty to some, most fans would be wary of casting off the shackles of supporting a team, especially for what would essentially be an expansion franchise (shiver!).

I Said the “European” Fanbase:
Another thing mingling execs may notice is the disparity of accents and languages spoken. They aren’t getting up on a Sunday morning to travel from Fort Worth to Dallas for a Cowboys game, they’re flying from all over Europe to come and see two teams they probably don’t really give a hoot about, but enjoy the novelty factor. Flying around Europe is generally inexpensive, probably less so than the same distance on a Greyhound, but such trips are expensive due to being bumped up by somewhat pricier train fares, depending on where you land. People need to take time off work, and more often than not need to stay overnight in London, not the cheapest of cities, especially when major sporting events are on. Throw in food, social beers etc., and the whole package comes to somewhere in the vicinity of $100 minimum. That doesn’t even include the price of the tickets, and the costs start to become prohibitive for all but people in close vicinity to London, and forget about any away games.

The Team:
Playing in a city with a time difference of at least 5 hours will no doubt create unparalleled home-field advantage, but can London field a competitive team? Even if it survives the early years of expansion (unless there’s a Carolina/Jacksonville type surge), how will players feel about playing in what is essentially a foreign city? Sure, they speak English, but what other draws does London have for American kids? They are far away from home for starters, but to be honest that’s not a much bigger deal than moving from Pennsylvania to San Diego distance-wise. Even so, will players want to go there? How will London compete in the free agent market? They may find they need to pay above scale for mid-level talent just to get them to move across the Pond. What about draft picks? Will there be petulant draftees doing a “Manning” and refusing to play in the UK, even though they may not even know where it is (Sorry, low blow)? Then of course there are those who may not be granted a visa for previous transgressions. I could go on, but I’d only get angry.

NFL, it has been decided by yours truly that an NFL team in London would be a waste of time, so here’s the alternative.

Bring Back NFL Europe

Yep! You heard me right. Bring back the old NFL Europe, except this time run it, like, properly. After the initial novelty (there’s that word again) of the league, interest in most of the teams died quickly, with interest only remaining high in Germany, where the last incarnation league finally based 5 teams. Of course, bear in mind that David Hasselhoff as a musician is still considered to be fresh in Germany, so don’t read into that fact too deeply without a grain of salt handy. I believe that an NFL Europe league would be welcomed back, even by cynical Europeans, despite the general disgust at the cessation of the old league (I know of guys who no longer support anything NFL as a result). Here are some things that must be considered:

Let the Teams Grow:
Stop farting around with the teams because they’re not pulling in 80,000 fans after a couple of years. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the NFL – ask Charles Woodson, he was there. Europeans appreciate loyalty, and if you build it they will come. The school ticket packages and ideas like it to draw in the younger generation was a stroke of genius, bring it back. Investing in grass-roots football again will also build loyalty. Sticking with the old team names is also a possibility, or trying something new and relevant to the country/city base too. But pledge 10 years to a team, play in smaller stadiums and expect to lose a few shekels initially. In time, merchandising will earn it back.

Team Locations:
This is of such importance to your new league, and while an extra presence in Germany is important, spread your wings a little. Start with eight (10 game schedule), one for each conference, and work your way up from there. How about 2 (maybe 3) teams in Germany, say, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf? Both had some success on the pitch and were the top 2 in terms of ticket sales over the last few years of the league. London is a must, of course, but don’t write off Italy, Scandinavia or even as far east as Poland or Russia. Each has their drawbacks, but there is a decent enough amateur league to build from – which leads me to my final point.

The Players:
Here’s my two cents on why NFLE failed – the players, or more likely, the lack of consistency in rosters. Shuttling in different players every season doesn’t provide a fanbase with favorite players to root for, and it does nothing for the play on the pitch – check out the general lack of a running game with most teams. I’m not saying write off the farm league concept entirely, but strip it down and stop sending over any old training camp chaff in the hope of finding the next Kurt Warner. European fans are extremely knowledgeable about football, and won’t buy into it again. Instead, model it on the CFL. They have a 37 player roster, with 8 native players. This has a nice double-edged effect, as it encourages teams to find truly outstanding local talent as they will be needed to contribute regularly with a smallish roster. How about each team donates 2 or 3 players at their own expense for development, but they have to earn their spot as opposed to getting it because Kraft said so? There could also be a 5 round draft for fringe NFL talent. This leaves a core group of at least 20 players for fans to root for. The key points here are limiting the amount of players sent over from the NFL, and keeping a veteran group intact.

So there is my take on the return of NFL Europe. Of course, some of the problems associated with locating an NFL team in London could be equally applied to NFLE, but when players are fighting for a bigger dream, or just for the fun of playing professional football, they will get it done. Again, look at the Canadian model and its success in drawing American talent (albeit on the same continent).

NFL International Series: How a London NFL team could work

NFL International Series Fan Rally

Yesterday Alex Sinclair explained why he thought a London NFL franchise was infeasible, I happen to think the move is so beneficial to the NFL in the long run that they will make it happen. While I completely understand it will be a legal, financial, and logistical nightmare in the beginning but the NFL owners realise they need to expand out of the US if they want to keep growing the league. Here are some things I think the NFL can do to help make a move outside the US.

Long term plan
The NFL International Series is currently in stage two of it’s roll out, the first stage was 2007-2012 which was one game a year in London. Stage two, which will run until 2016, is multiple London games to see how elastic demand is for the NFL. The Jaguars will visit London for four home games and potentially build a support in the city, by that stage there could be up to three or four games a year in London. The third stage, pending the success of stage two, will be to relocate or put an expansion a team in London. First off this move wont be happening in the next five years, all talk coming out of the NFL seems to be that the target is the next ten years. Only if the NFL knows it can get the fans out for multiple games will it consider the implementing next stage of the plan.

If you build it they will come
The NFL has expanded plenty of times in it’s existence, unsurprisingly fans converted to their new local teams most of the time – L.A. being an obvious example of it not working. It should be no different in London. While there may not be a market to sell out eight games a season at the moment, the American football fan base in the UK will expand with each year the International Series runs and let’s not forget about fans from Europe eager to see live American football who can’t afford the trip stateside. Remember there were no Texans fans in Houston 12 years ago and no Panthers fans in Carolina 20 years ago.

Smaller stadium
Realistically Wembley is too big to host eight games a season, considering Sundays attendance at the Rams and Patriots game was the second highest attendance in the NFL that day. Moving to a smaller stadium makes much more sense, something in the region of fifty or sixty thousand capacity would be ideal. It will be difficult to find a stadium that has the required space that an NFL game takes up, maybe the Olympic Stadium would suit the NFL’s needs.

Two four-game series in the US
To limit the amount of travel the London team would need to undertake, it would make sense to play their away fixtures four games at a time. If the London franchise didn’t make the playoffs they would only need to travel across the Atlantic four times a season.

West coast teams should play on the east coast week before
With over 5,000 miles between the US west coast and London, teams like the 49ers and the Chargers would have huge trips to make to play a game in London, it makes sense for the NFL to schedule an east coast game the week before to minimise travel. Something similar to the 49ers stays in Youngstown the last two years.

Visiting teams will have a bye week after London games
As is the procedure at the moment, the teams participating in the London games gets a bye week the following week. It makes sense to keep with this tradition.

Cap exemptions and financial assistance
While some players would love to come to England to play football, former lineman Ross Tucker said on the ESPN Football Today podcast that he would have embraced the opportunity coming out of college. Some players will understandably be less keen to move country, therefore for the first few years the NFL should provide an incentive scheme for players, maybe 10% or 20% extra in wages. This would mean that the London team would need a salary cap exemption but the bonus would definitely attract some of the better players in the NFL who may have had reservations. The NFL would most likely have to help the London team financially for the first few years also.

Work out a tax plan with government
In a strange Forbes article, the author talks about how the NFL will never come to the UK as the tax implications are too complex but then goes onto say that the English government has already shown it’s willing to make exceptions for sporting events. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen, especially in the timescale we’re talking about and if anyone can get tax exemptions from governments it’s US businesses!

Looking at all the reasons the NFL wouldn’t expand to London, the only one I see as a show stopper is ticket sales. If it becomes obvious London isn’t ready for two or more games then a London franchise becomes extremely questionable, and the NFL may explore another developmental league in Europe instead.

NFL International Series: London Lacking

NFL International Series Fan Rally Trafalgar Square

With the obvious expansion of the NFL on the not so distant horizon, and an increased schedule for the International Series in London next year, talk of a team relocating across the pond has heated up in recent weeks. Fans of the sport in Europe are clamouring for a local team to root for and their US counterparts are reluctant to give up one of their beloved franchises to a country whom they view as being preoccupied with a nil-all draw of their ‘beautiful game’. As an Irishman, it’s difficult to not want the sport to expand into closer territories, creating ample opportunities to view that which has engulfed every possible Sunday for several years now. Unfortunately though, it seems what the European market is doing is setting itself up to suffer long term pain at short term gain. For the sake of argument, let’s say this potential relocation does go ahead and a London NFL franchise is in place. For this example, we’ll say the least popular currently active team relocates and according to a May 2012 poll is the Jacksonville Jaguars who ranked dead last with just 0.4% of those surveyed identifying as supporters of the team. Considering their recent agreement to give up one home game for the next four years in place of a showcase at Wembley, they seem a suitable candidate for such a move.

So at the end of the 2013 season, the Jaguars announce they’ll be moving to London for the following year. They’ll take with them their current roster, coaching staff and to avoid semantics, let’s just say branding too, transforming themselves into the London Jaguars. These things aren’t likely to go off without a hitch. An already struggling team (they’d have to be in order to be probable to move) would be faced with the possibility of compensating unhappy staff and players who don’t wish to pack up and leave the country where the majority of them have lived their entire lives thus far. In realistic terms, the London Jaguars would be lucky to keep 70% of their current employment roster including players. Several players would seek trades or a release as moving to another existing team would be more appealing than braving life overseas. If you thought current player holdouts were a headache, just imagine the idea of half the team doing it at the same time. After the releases, trades and coaching changes, whether minor or not, the Jags are left in rebuilding mode. They’d likely be compensated with extra draft picks for the players traded and lost during the move so building through the draft would be an integral part of the moving process. There should be less problems with rookie players moving over as they’d be young and inexperienced but hiccups, like John Elway and Eli Manning whom both refused to play for their respective teams when drafted, wouldn’t be unexpected if they’d established themselves as elite college players before their playing careers began. In order to cover their bases, London would have to promise more lucrative contracts than other teams to their draft picks, most likely in the area of fully guaranteed money. This would allow the draft contract ladder to still scale the same per pick while still providing an added bonus for London’s picks.

In terms of free-agent signings though, this team would be a tough sell. Relocated teams are generally not contenders in their first five years of play. Best case scenario would be the Baltimore Ravens, whereby the shell of a middling team was built upon from a defensive standpoint and they won the Super Bowl in 2000 after finishing the 1995 season in orange and white as the Cleveland Browns. London fans, even if their team got to the big game would be somewhat disenfranchised as the most important game in the team’s history would be played several thousand miles away causing a lower fan presence than normally would occur for a championship team. What will most likely happen though is that you’ll have a team that needs to shell out the maximum amount of money under the salary cap to just get a semi-competitive roster. Free agent signings would require a huge bump in pay in order to convince the trip over is worth it. Even respected franchises such as the Buffalo Bills have a hard time getting players to sign due to the bad weather and poor track record. If you add to this, an oceanic commute, it’ll be a hard sell. The team would be susceptible to haemorrhage money by signing free agents as they fork out more than usual in what could effectively be called continental transfer costs . The fixed draftee salary based on where a player is selected would be the team’s only hope of getting good market value for a player of a certain calibre, and even then, the risk of refusal would be ever present.

On top of the problems with actual roster management is the obvious toll that travelling across the Atlantic at least half a dozen times a year would have on the quality of play. Regardless of playing at home or away, every game involving the London Jaguars would include a team that has spent significant time travelling in the days leading up to the game. A west coast team such as San Diego or Seattle would have to travel over 8000km each way to play in London. While the distance may be the biggest home advantage to come from this, the reverse would result in a presumably lacklustre London squad performing below its own humble standards for every away game. These are excuses that would grow tired on a fledgling fan base whom all most likely started watching the sport while supporting another team. A losing franchise is a franchise losing fans. Geography is unlikely to change that trend, even in an atmosphere starved of alternative teams such as the UK.

The third and final reason I don’t think a London franchise would ever be put in place is the state of the current NFL television rights contract. In order for a home game to be shown on TV in the locality of where it’s played, a pre-assigned benchmark of 85-100% of stadium tickets must be sold 72 hours prior to its start time. The caveat that is put in place if that number is not reached is that the local broadcasting networks are unable to show live coverage of the game. The lower the attendance percentage set, the more the team has to pay towards NFL revenue from ticket costs. In order for a London team to stay active the TV deals would have to be amended to include an international audience and it remains to be seen if the other owners would be in favour of a team having a modified rate of revenue payments just for the sake of expanding the sport into a worldwide market. Without this, the London Jaguars would be forced to fork out even more from already depleted funds. If this team was going to work at all, it would need to max out expenditure every single year on a very risky investment in a location which already has a strong support for two other team sports, rugby and soccer. And when it comes down to it, I don’t think that any owner, or potential future owner, would assess those risks any differently. There are simply too many individual areas where this team could lose a vast amount of money. The team would need to survive long term for the owner to get any potential benefit and I don’t see the NFL setting up and running a league-owned team in the hope of a future buyout, like the NBA did with the New Orleans Hornets. The NFL is a business and the London model just isn’t sustainable for the league in the short term to warrant long term investment by the league or an owner. For the sake of the fans, I hope an NFL team isn’t moved out of the US. The risk of disbandment in less than five years time is too high and if it failed it would leave a gap in the bottom of the system. This would involve this whole process starting over again and costing the fans what they truly want, the ability to watch quality football week after week. For now, we’ll settle for embracing neutral site games such as the International Series when we can and make do with Kevin Cadle and Mike Carlson’s studio analyses for those weeks in between.