The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, says he wants his city to have an NFL team in the city’s currently vacant Olympic Stadium. The NFL has now played six, sold out regular season games in London, and Johnson says “Sunday’s game at Wembley, in front of over 80,000 fans, further cements London’s reputation as the natural home of American football outside of the United States.”
That may be true, but I think there are a ton of hurdles to overcome if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell really wants to place a franchise in London.
The first is the time difference. I don’t know if prime time is the same in London as it is here, but if their fans are going to be fans of the entire NFL, they’ve got a problem. Each week, FOX Network and CBS start their best games at 3:25 central time. 4:25 in the east, 1:25 in the west. What time does that “Game of the Week” start in London? For the first half of the season, 9:25 p.m., and 8:25 for the second half. That means games are ending well after midnight for the first half of the season.
What about for the NFL’s showcase games on Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night? They all start right around 7:20 St. Louis time. 12:20 in the morning in London, if they want to watch live. The Super Bowl? It’s aired live in London every year, and it starts at about 10:20 p.m. their time, ending at about 1:30 in the morning.
How about if a team from the Pacific Time zone has to play in London? When the 49ers played in London, it took thirteen hours to fly the 5,371 miles. And the time change was enormous, having to move seven hours forward, and then back. Can you imagine a London based team playing a Thursday night game in Denver, at 12:20 their time? I don’t think you could ever have London play a prime time game.
Jim Hanifan made a good point during our pregame show last week. Players are generally in their 20’s and 30’s when they play football, and many start families during that time. The start of the football season coincides with the start of the school year. Are players…if they plan on making a life in America…going to want their kids growing up learning the Metric system and a completely different way of life? Some will, that’s the nature of the beast, but I would think many would not. On the other side of the coin, many young players’ parents attend every game they play in the states. Sam Bradford’s parents do. Is a player who enjoys that part of the profession going to make that sort of sacrifice?
Along those lines, the NFL is a transient business. Think about a guy like Jason Brown, who signed as a free agent with the Rams, bought an expensive house here, put down roots, and then was cut when a new coach came in. Are free agents, with the knowledge that could happen to them, going to want to plant themselves in London?
Finally, and most importantly, the NFL needs to find out what sort of football city London is before seriously considering a move of this magnitude. When I was a senior in high school, the St. Louis Steamers…an indoor soccer team…came into existence. They were THE item in the early eighties in town, and all of my friends loved going to the games at the old Arena. In 1981-’82, only one North American winter sports team based in an arena, the Edmonton Oilers (17,490), averaged more than the Steamers 17,107 per game.
Yes, we were an indoor soccer town. No doubt about it. It was going to last forever. But, it didn’t. Indoor soccer was a novelty, and the Steamers were winning in those early years. When we’d seen a few games, and when the fortunes of the team soured, we quit going. We had roots in baseball, hockey and football, and kept going to those games. After their ninth season, the Steamers closed their doors, with unsuccessful indoor follow-ups (including another incarnation of the Steamers) along the way.
Right now, American football is a novelty in London. Of course people are going to go when it’s new; it’s an event, and when they want to impress the NFL. But when they have a team that goes 6-10 for a few seasons, are Brits REALLY going to be fired up about the NFL? Or, are they going to bail on American football and go back to their roots, which are soccer, rugby, tennis and cricket.
The NFL in London as a novelty is great. With Mayor Johnson’s statement saying that “Only last week the mayor, in conjunction with the NFL, announced an expansion from one to two regular-season matches (games if you’re reading this in America) in London for 2013,” they’ve positioned themselves perfectly. The Jaguars are going to play one game a year there for each of the next four seasons, and there may be another game in London, like there is next year, every season.
But if the NFL wants to move a franchise to London, they better do a lot of homework before placing a team there, because they could wind up being Roger Goodell’s version of the St. Louis Steamers.