NFL – Not For Long?

For a nation in which market share often proves a more tightly contested battleground for the sports industry than the fields of play themselves; the NFL seems to have outgrown the market. Overtaking Baseball – frequently referred to as America’s pastime – the NFL has seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the past 20 years; firmly entrenching itself as the sporting image that best represents the United States and more importantly from their perspective, the most lucrative sporting industry with a number of franchises worth over a billion dollars. As should be expected from a country known for emblematic phrases such as “everything is bigger in Texas”; such national dominance is not nearly enough and so it is that recent years have seen a plan put in place to extent outside of the States and London appears the desired point of expansion. For the past 5 years the NFL have held a game each year at Wembley stadium as part of their ‘International Series’. The initiative appears to have proved a marked success with tickets selling out each year despite prices in line with the top tier Premier League clubs; indeed for its first showing in 2007, 40,000 tickets were sold in the first ninety minutes. Such figures are all well and good in suggesting the viability of London for the NFL’s newest franchise, however, the reality is far more complicated.

The 49ers celebrate a touchdown at Wembley

The success or failure of a London based NFL franchise very much wrests upon the ability of a team to develop an affinity within the area and a strong supportive fan base, willing to part with what is likely to be a large sum of money on a regular basis. An atmosphere must be generated which draws fans back. Having attended the two highest scoring Wembley games it is has largely been a damp squib with crowd reaction sparse to what in many cases was a high quality performance on the pitch. Spectators need to be there not just for the experience but to cheer along the team they support. In my opinion this seems to depend upon the way in which expansion is carried out. In the case of the NFL it can occur in one of two ways. The first is that there is an increase in the number of teams in the league. These new teams will be given their choice of a certain number of existing NFL players for a decided pool as well as advantageously high picks from the pool of players emerging from college. If this is the case I believe the experiment will fail. Such teams typically take a while to reach any sort parity with their counterparts let alone material success. For example the Houston Texans established in 2002 have been perennial disappointments and only 9 years on are they looking to book their first playoff place in a significantly weakened division. Such initial failure in a London franchise would lead to inevitable disillusionment and unless the NFL were prepared to continue to pump money into it until it saw success; render discontinuation an inevitability. The alternative, and more likely move is to relocate one of the existing franchises from an NFL city to London. It is this situation that has a higher likelihood of success depending on the team that move. The obvious choice would be the New England Patriots who hold the largest English fan-base if for no other reason than that inherent in their name. This is extremely unlikely however due to their huge success and strong association with the sports-mad Boston area. More likely is the relocation of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a result of owner Malcolm Glazer’s holding of Manchester United and therefore appreciation of the English sporting market. Furthermore, the ‘Bucs’ have played twice at Wembley already demonstrating a willingness to relocate. Should this prove the case, their NFL record young team and early success could prove the catalyst for a London fan-base to grow up with them.

Clearly however, regardless of the success the team there are only so many sports fans who are willing to go and pay to watch games week in week out and the majority of these are already tied up in other sports; for the most part football. The NFL will have to draw market share from the existing sports teams. In consideration of this, London appears the wrong place to attempt this. For the past two years, it has played host to five Premier League teams, a quarter of the top flight. In addition, it holds four Premier rugby teams, a third of the total. Quite simply, London is already packed with sports teams and while the NFL can currently attract 80,000 interested spectators to Wembley each year, the jury is still out as to whether they will be able to fill 640,000 seats with sports fans. A task, which becomes even more questionable if they continue to charge £70 a ticket. While the product may be just as polished as the English Premier League charging the same ticket prices as it’s top teams will do nothing to draw its historically loyal supporters to a new and foreign sport.

If nothing else, then the logical considerations must be taken into account by the NFL, namely the time difference. People point to the three hour time difference that exists between the East and West coasts and the considerable distance of a flight from New York to San Francisco, however, this itself is a problem inherent in the current NFL with East coast teams consistently beating their West coast counterparts as they travel to play. Such a problem would surely only magnify significantly with a five to eight hour time difference. Furthermore whilst the NFL has compensated for the travel difficulties of teams in the International Series by providing a week off, this is simply not a viable solution for a 16 game season.

Therefore, in what is probably a wonderful parody of the difference between the two nations; my British cynicism has me suggesting the NFL slow their optimistic plans for expansion across the Atlantic saving current expansion for areas such Toronto and the huge Los Angeles market where success is far more likely. While I would love the opportunity to see NFL played when I wished, it just seems a potentially ruinous move to make. At three hours long, NFL matches are less sporting events then social events; something that Britons have not grown up with, and as such are not used to. Rather than pushing the novelty factor of the sport with Jake Humphreys providing a typically idiot-targeted explanation – see also, Formula 1 and any other sporting event where the BBC has spent all their budget on the rights, so cannot afford a presenter – the NFL would be better served investing at the grass-roots level. The NFL has only to look at what the presence of Great Britain playing Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls has done for the image of Basketball in England, providing children with a target to aim and aspire for. Build a genuine interest in and understanding of the game rather than a casual amusement and then perhaps a London franchise can begin to realistically consider drawing crowds for 8 games every year, and the NFL can begin their search for dominance of the world sporting market, and finally give credence to their terming of the NFL winners as ‘World Champions’.

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