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The NFL London Franchise Conundrum

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This weekend will see the struggling Atlanta Falcons take on the high flying Detroit Lions. It is a big fixture for both these sides, who each need the win. The Falcons are 2-5, but still somehow remain in contention for the NFC South crown. The Lions are leading the way in the NFC North, but only by a tie breaker over the Green Bay Packers.

Yet that introduction completely misses the biggest aspect of this particular clash. The venue will be Wembley in London, England. It is the second of three games to be played in London this year, as the NFL looks to increase its market and potential abroad. The London series has been a fixture since 2007, and this is the first year that three games have been played there. But what are the long term future plans for the NFL in London?

The NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, is very much in favour of a permanent London franchise. It is only natural that the game would look to expand, because there is always more money to be gained from opening up to new markets. As much as the NFL is a very profitable organisation year in and year out, there is always room for progress. Standing still in big business rarely works out.

The London games always sell out. No matter the calibre of the match ups, there are never empty seats. There have been full houses for some of the most lopsided, unevenly balanced games imaginable. London has also been host to some classics, such as the New Orleans Saints victory over the San Diego Chargers in 2008. There is a clear thirst for American Football in England.

The Wembley board have made it quite clear that they would be delighted to take on an NFL franchise. The prospect of eight extra full house games per year would undoubtedly boost their coffers enormously, and it would be good to see this quality stadium full on a more regular basis. For the most part, it is now reserved for English international soccer games, which are by no means guaranteed to sell out.

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. First and foremost, it is never easy to establish a new franchise in the NFL. The Houston Texans are the newest NFL team, having joined the league in 2002. They have only made the playoffs on two occasions, in 2011 and 2012. Their first few years in the league were little more than a disaster, with the challenges in building a team from scratch proving too much. It can be hard to attract quality people at all positions in a franchise, with everyone from general managers and coaches to quarterbacks and offensive linemen finding their options rather more plentiful. The situation has to be just right for somebody to sign with a new franchise. If a London team were to spend five or six years adjusting and building, but losing heavily on a frequent basis, would there really still be sellouts for every home game?

The geographical impact will magnify this even further. The guys you draft will be obliged to stay with you, but what are the prospects of signing free agents whose roots remain firmly in the US? Many teams year on year are just one or two players away from making a breakthrough. But the likelihood is that a London team will have to pay over the odds to entice anyone with options to join them. Not getting value for money is the single biggest detrimental factor for NFL teams every year, with unwise player investments setting teams like the Oakland Raiders back for an entire decade.

The likelihood is that the travel issue could be simplified, with a London team playing their fixtures in blocks of four at home, followed by four away. This could circumvent the clear handicap of weekly transatlantic flights. A bigger logistical headache comes in the team’s position in the league. Do they replace a current franchise? And if so, who? If not, how many teams will then become part of the NFL? The collective bargaining agreement prevents NFL teams from playing more than sixteen regular season games, yet fans would surely react in uproar if their local team’s schedule were to be reduced by any number. It is this difficult balance that could be most difficult to solve.

There are already some British professional players, most notably the Raiders offensive tackle Menelik Watson and the former British Olympian Lawrence Okoye, who is on the San Francisco Forty-Niners practice squad. The number of British players seems to increase year on year, another sign of the game’s growing popularity here. But establishing a legitimate route for British talent to join the NFL is certainly another area that may take some cajoling.

This weekend’s game was surely due to be the NFL’s statement game in London in 2014. Although the Dallas Cowboys, who have been hugely popular in England for decades and are currently on the crest of a wave on the field, will be here in week ten, their opponents will be the far less marketable Jacksonville Jaguars, who continue to struggle. Yet the Falcons have failed to bounce back this season, and typically the team who has further to travel suffers in London games. Whatever the result of the game, superstars like Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Ndamakung Suh,  Julio Jones, Roddy White and Matt Ryan playing here will have to be a further boost to the NFL’s London presence.

It is debatable whether or not London should end up with a franchise, but money sways big organisations into big moves. We may be just a few short years away from cheering on our “local” London franchise. It is very hard to say definitively how it would improve the NFL, other than financially. The game needs more teams competing with the best, not more blowouts. It is hard to imagine a London franchise being successful initially. But what a sight it would be to cheer on Team London in the NFL playoffs, or even a Super Bowl.

Image courtesy of RobertLawrence.co.uk

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