This week, the NFL goes back to England to play its annual “London Bowl” game in the fabled new Wembley Stadium. And as happens about every year at this time, some wild-eyed writers and announcers will start talking about the possibility, in the not-so-distant future, of the NFL putting a franchise in London.
This reminds me of all the times in the ’70s when someone would start a rumor that the Beatles were getting back together. You’d hear radio DJs salivate over the prospect, then newspapers and magazines would write about the awesome possibilities and lucrative paydays … and then nothing would happen.
So it is with a London NFL franchise. It sounds great on the surface: One of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities; a huge, untapped market; interest spiraling upward through the years (when tickets for the Giants-Dolphins game went on sale in 2007, they sold 40,000 in the first 90 minutes), and the possibility of expanding the league’s global footprint.
It seems perfect, until you stop for even two minutes to consider what the practical realities would be of placing a team there. First of all, you’ve got to deal with transplanting 53 young men overseas, almost all of them living abroad for the first time in their lives. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” It would be a significant adjustment, and some players simply wouldn’t want to go. For every person like Andrew Luck who has lived overseas and might be receptive to being based in a franchise that played its game overseas, there would be five or ten or more players who wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Think of it: All else being equal, is a free agent going to sign with Dallas … or a London fanchise?
Then you’d have to deal with the reality of how the London team would play its schedule. Right now, every team that travels across the Atlantic to play a game gets a bye the next week, but there wouldn’t be 16 byes for the London franchise. They’d likely have to cluster their road games overseas (two three-week road trips and one two-week trip). Then there’d be the question of how the rest of the league would play eight games in England. If there are that many games over in London, it wouldn’t be possible to schedule a bye after each one.
St. Louis and New England play in Wembley this Sunday, and their different strategies about when to go over there is indicative of the challenges at hand. The Rams left for London on Monday, to get acclimated to the time change and then get into a normal week of work. New England is leaving on Thursday, opting to get their normal week of prep out of the way in the States, and then get acclimated in two days. Rams coach Jeff Fisher is opting to get his team converted to London time, while New England and Bill Belichick may very well try to keep their team on Eastern Standard Time. (For the record, and conceding that Fisher may be right, the Patriots’ plan is probably what I would do. There’s a five-hour time difference between Boston and London. The game Sunday will be played at 6 p.m. London time, making it a 1 p.m. Eastern time kickoff, exactly when the Patriots often start their home games.)
Now, go back to the challenges faced by a London team in the league. The two three-week road trips would become not just a logistical problem, but a competitive one as well. You’d have a team pulled out of its routine, living an itinerant existence for the better part of two months out of each season. Remember that football players are creatures of habit, the professional athletes whose lives most resemble a regular workweek. They have eight business trips during the regular season, usually with a single overnight stay for each trip, but the rest of the time they stay at home, getting a two-day “weekend” at the end of each workweek, reporting to the home office every morning. If you have a London team, that crucial regular-season routine gets tossed out the window.
And for visiting teams, it’s also a bear. Take a look at what a West Coast team (like the 49ers, who are slated for London next season) would face: moving across eight time zones to play a football game, then coming back. And suppose the London team qualifies for the playoffs? There are no bye weeks after a win in the post-season. How would you like to fly to London for a playoff game on a Friday, win a game on a Sunday, then come back jet-lagged and have to play at San Diego the following week? Until someone invents Star Trek-styled quantum travel, a London team feels like a non-starter.
But the bigger problem with London is that it detracts from where the league’s international focus ought to be, which is down in Mexico City. It’s on the same continent, has a strong core of knowledgeable football fans, a huge and still underutilized TV market (and, I’ll grant, its own set of challenges). But it’s a much more logical spot to put an NFL team. The very same factors that make Estadio Azteca in Mexico City such a daunting home-field advantage for the Mexican National soccer team would also be in play for a football team down there. Imagine the rivalry games between Mexico City and Houston, or Mexico City and Dallas.
If history is any guide, this week’s game in London will offer a sellout crowd, good visuals and — maybe because of luck, maybe because of the extreme effects on the teams that travel over there — a sloppy, not-very-memorable game.
Quick! What’s your favorite moment from the past five years of games in London? Can’t think of one? Neither can I.