The league is thinking with a more international focus. But is the end goal to have bigger games overseas or something much greater?
It is no secret that the NFL envisions American Football as a sport with global popularity potential. Its ambitions across the Atlantic can be traced back to 1974 with the failed Intercontinental Football League. Future iterations of a global football league would continue to surface, with the final attempt being the now-defunct NFL Europe. The NFL quickly realized that in an ever-changing media landscape, remaining confined to the United States was a mistake. And ever since then, they have been trying to capture the European market.
Its latest attempt to win over the eyeballs of Europeans and other international audiences is through its International Series of games. What started as one game per season in London has morphed into multiple games in London and Germany this season (5 total games). These games have been successful, attracting attendance numbers similar to an average NFL game (77K average attendance in International games versus 69K average across NFL games played in the US). But one has to wonder, what is the end game of the NFL continuing to push its product in Europe. Could it be more games of significance or maybe even a team relocating across the pond?
The Need For Reach
Consider for a moment that you are in charge of the NFL. You are the most watched professional sport in your country. But the story is much different from an international perspective. Unlike other team sports like soccer, basketball, hockey, and baseball your presence is limited to one country. Soccer is popular on every continent, baseball has a huge footprint in Asia and Latin America, basketball leagues are all over Europe, and hockey is a dominant sport in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Given this reality it would be imperative to grow the game of football internationally to be able to compete with rival leagues like the NBA and MLB.
So the NFL looked to Europe, with an intention to soft launch the sport that Americans love so much to see if they can get Europeans hooked on the strange sport of American football. Unlike soccer, basketball, and hockey the game is not free-flowing. It contains planned stoppages and regulated violence with a strange scoring system for an uninitiated viewer. But the games have been successful, filled with fans of multiple teams flocking to stadiums to catch live NFL action. This has also been must-see television in the UK, as ratings on Sky Sports have been positive as well.
In addition to drawing more eyeballs in Europe, the introduction of international games has allowed the NFL to monopolize every possible time slot on Sundays from 9:30 AM EST all the way until 11:00 PM EST. The NFL will continue to dominate Sundays, and now the fans in Europe are getting in on the action. As the popularity increases, it becomes evident that the NFL might take the next step in expansion, and relocate a team to Europe.
Expansion on the Horizon?
When the idea of the NFL expanding to Europe is suggested, one of the main obstacles set forth is travel time. After all, if the southern California teams were to travel to London they would be looking at a 10.5 hour flight compared to the 3-5 hour flight times within the continental US. But when you take a deeper look, it could be more plausible. Twelve of the NFLs franchises play on the East Coast or close to it, that would mean that a London flight is 5-6 hours, which is not a huge stretch when compared to a West Coast flight. The travel across the Atlantic is long, but the NFL has the benefit of only playing once a week so that recovery time from jet lag can be overcome, as long as a team in London didn’t have short weeks by playing on Thursdays or Mondays.
This year there were three games in London. A team in London would mean 8 or 9 home games. It would also mean that the teams that currently play London games would gain a home game back. That can be considered a win for fan bases of a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have played 11 games in London (the most of any team). Beyond that, giving London a team that it can get behind will allow an entire continent to follow a team in a new sport, and bring the type of passion to games that we see across the top levels of European soccer.
The question immediately becomes, if this were to happen, what team would be relocated to London. The aforementioned Jaguars are a natural choice. They play in the crowded Florida market that has two other franchises with the Dolphins and Buccaneers, and have by far been the team most familiar with the London fan base. Could it be the Los Angeles Chargers, who currently share a stadium with the more popular Rams? The Chargers have felt out of place in LA and a move to London could give the franchise a fresh start, but it would also require some division realignment when you consider that Las Vegas, Denver, and Kansas City all play in their division. Lastly, staying in the AFC West, could be the Denver Broncos. The team is under new ownership with the Walton family and a new stadium deal could entice them to close up shop in the Rocky Mountain state and start over across the Atlantic.
But let’s think a little more wide-ranging. With the introduction and proliferation of spring football leagues there is more talent available in pro football than ever before. With that in mind, how outlandish would an expansion of the league to include 4 franchises in Europe be? Doing this would create a 36-team league and create natural territorial rivalries between 4 European cities. London is an obvious candidate, as is Munich or Frankfurt as they have hosted games in recent years. The last two just based on geographic reach would likely be Barcelona and Paris. This European division would of course cause a shakeup in seeding strategy and playoff alignment but it would deliver the goal of the NFL expanding its media footprint into Europe and eventually the rest of the world. To further test this, we might see the league try to play its biggest game, the Super Bowl, in another country. This outcome definitely feels a bit more immediately likely than wholesale franchise expansion at this moment.
The World’s Biggest Show
The Super Bowl is by far the biggest sporting event that is consumed in the United States. Last year's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs was watched by 115 million Americans, marking a third straight year of consecutive growth in viewership. While this number is impressive, it pales in comparison to the viewership of the UEFA Champions League Final which had 450 million viewers this past year. European club soccer’s championship is a global spectacle that is broadcast on televisions across the globe. This is what the NFL wants the Super Bowl to become.
A potential solution to the global reach problem would be to play a game in London or another European country. This would of course make the viewing of the Super Bowl a bit earlier than it usually is, but based on the many people who watch the game every year, this may not be a bad thing. Hosting in Europe would mean that the media frenzy that is associated with Super Bowl week would descend upon a European city, allowing for intrigue and interest to mount for locals. This interest could be translated into burgeoning fandom. These discussions are already being had in the NFL offices, and it is possible that this is the endgame that allows the sport to take off internationally.
It cannot be ignored, however, that there are many die hard NFL fans that are not impressed by the NFLs international ambitions. There is a sense of the game of American football being an American thing, first and foremost. It is the only major sport that we watch that has not been overtaken by other countries. Basketball is now dominated by Europeans, baseball has long been the sport of Asia and Latin America, and hockey is the sport with the most Canadians and Russians. Football, however, is staunchly American. As such, there might be some resistance to continuing international expansion across the Atlantic.
Such gripes are fruitless in the grand scheme of things. The NFL has shown that it is primarily concerned with profitability above all else. If there is money to be made and ratings to be had in London or any other European market, it will jump at the opportunity. I have a hard time saying that this league is content with just a few games overseas every regular season. This is a league that is constantly looking towards the future, and it seems that that future is across the Atlantic Ocean. Whether this means a Super Bowl in London, a team being relocated to Europe, or both remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the NFL sees its future overseas and we are all along for the ride.