Written by Sport

The NFL in London

This Sunday sees the first of this year’s International Series NFL games at Wembley – the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins. This year there are once again three games, all regular season fixtures, meaning they’re not friendlies, and they count for the teams involved who want to reach the playoffs.

I went to one of the first regular games at Wembley and had a good time. I enjoy watching a bit of NFL on Sunday evenings on Sky Sports – either the live games of the week, or via Redzone which flips around all the games happening at once.

I’m also aware of the serious medical concerns about the way the game is played – the repeated concussions that seems to be linked to some early deaths. (The same is probably also true of rugby)

But I do get increasingly uncomfortable about the International Series, and I don’t go any longer because I don’t think it’s fair on the local fans. The regular season of NFL is actually a pretty tight 16 fixtures over a 17 week season. Compare and contrast with a 38 match season – 19 matches home and away – for a Premier League team. NFL teams normally have one “bye” week, and for teams that travel across the Atlantic, that’s scheduled for the week after an International Series game to allow players to properly get over any issues with jet-lag.

16 fixtures a season means only 8 home games a season before the playoffs. So a team that plays a fixture abroad is denying local fans a live opportunity to see one eighth of their games. This season that means fans in Miami, Jacksonville and Kansas City lose out on the opportunity of seeing a home game.

The NFL has to carefully balance the games they choose to send abroad by perhaps choosing less well supported teams against the need to have attractive fixtures to sell the game internationally. Because that’s what this is about. The NFL is the pre-eminent sport in the US bar none, yet it doesn’t have the international appeal that they would like it to have. The NBA is probably the most popular US domestic sport internationally. And it’s notable that they too play games around the world to build on that.

The NFL will no doubt be shouting loudly about how the games at Wembley are sold out, and yet you get the feeling that demand and supply are reasonably evenly matched.

One way to achieve a wider international appeal might be to have a UK franchise (Yes – pretty much like a Subway “franchise.” That’s the way US sports work.) And for some reason George Osborne was today entertaining NFL representatives:

So what’s my problem with all of this?

Well first of all, it’s this kind of thing that gives the Premier League big ideas. Remember the 39th game? That ideas was shut down at the time, but you wouldn’t bet against it coming back, despite the inequality of some clubs playing others three times in the course of a season (“We get to play Man City a THIRD time?”). And it’s not as though the Premier League isn’t perfectly successful already. While the NFL is still more profitable, due in large part to the size and value of the US domestic TV market, the Premier League is the next biggest, and is probably the most popular domestic league around the world. Fans who’ve never missed a game in their lives suddenly can’t get along to the 39th game of the season – because it’s in Bangkok or Los Angeles!

But my other issue is the way US sports expect local governments to support them. Teams in the US seem to shift around the country at will – normally because they’ve decided they need a bigger newer stadium, and somewhere else is willing to give over the land, provide large tax-breaks or basically pay for the building of their new home. Clubs are all (well, nearly all) privately owned, and those businessmen didn’t get where they are today worrying too much about local fans. That basically explains why a city as large as Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team.

So in a week when Transport for London decided that the capital couldn’t afford to host the Tour de France in 2017 (a decision that I tend to think was probably right, but handled utterly ineptly), I’d like to know what kind of demands the incredibly wealthy NFL would make on London to find a permanent home for an NFL team.

If the NFL wants to have a London-based team, and the backing comes from private money, then that’s fine by me. But I don’t expect to see a penny of tax-payer funding, in cash or tax-breaks, going on such an enterprise.