Could an NFL team find a permanent home in London?

November 7, 2019

When they travel to Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for a Thursday Night Football matchup that has some serious intrigue and potential playoff significance, the Los Angeles Chargers will face a crowd that is firmly against them. The Chargers are used to playing the part of the underdog, but the TNF showcase comes at an interesting time.

This is a weird week for the franchise, which recently endured a three-game skid of appalling quality, yet outfired the in-form Green Bay Packers 26-11 last Sunday with a superb performance. That’s the Chargers. On and off the field, you never know what you’re going to get.

Coming out of that game was a bombshell report in The Athletic that a move to London was being strongly considered by both the team and the National Football League, followed swiftly by an equally bombshell denial. Can a denial even qualify as a bombshell? Chargers owner Dean Spanos certainly put explosive force behind it, with a string of expletives that left no doubt where his intentions lay.

But maybe a move to London would make sense; if not for the Chargers, then perhaps for any NFL franchise that fits the bill.

Everything that has gone on with the Chargers (who, let’s not forget, were one of the very best teams in football last season) is pretty extraordinary. It’s a team loaded with talent, and a team it seems we should be talking about much more often.

Instead, the Chargers only seem to make headlines when there are stories linking them with London, or when wide receiver Keenan Allen complains to The Los Angeles Times about “playing 16 road games.” Attendance is healthy, but Dignity Health Sports Park is filled with the colors of the rival team each time out.

“It’s a really tough one,” FOX NFL insider Jay Glazer told me. “It’s hard to say how to fix it.

“You have got so much competition, with the Lakers and the Clippers and Hollywood [in general]. There’s a lot going on. It isn’t enough just to be good; you need star power, something to get that market excited. And you need to sustain that over a long period of time. Even the Rams found it hard last year with getting to the Super Bowl. It’s tough to break through.”

The current situation, dictating the team will be tenants in a stadium owned and funded by the Los Angeles Rams from 2020 onwards, is far from ideal. Things got good on the field last season, but prospects of a deep playoff charge were dimmed when the 12-4 squad (tied for the AFC’s best record) landed only a fifth seed, thanks to the division rival Kansas City Chiefs being equally dominant.

And now, days after the London report got everyone talking, they get to play the Raiders (of all teams) on national television (FOX, 8 p.m. ET).

The Raiders have also relocated twice already, with another switch on the horizon. But Oakland embraced them when they returned there, Los Angeles refused to forget them, and indications are that Las Vegas is excited for their arrival. How the Chargers must crave something similar. Their temporary home is a 29,000-seat soccer arena which is currently doubling as a road team party zone.

Let’s, for the moment, get past the notion that London is the perfect get-out for a team in this kind of situation. If anything, London is a prize. If a permanent franchise across the pond happens, whichever owner gets it is likely to be one that has invested hugely, exhausted all legitimate options in its own market and shown it can at least sustain a local following.

“The NFL’s long effort to gain a football foothold in England has worked,” wrote Yahoo Sports national columnist Dan Wetzel. “The league played four games there this year and attracted sellout crowds for all of them. The early Sunday morning television window is a boon. The new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is built NFL-ready, much better than the clunky fit (and small locker rooms) of Wembley Stadium.”

Fate, circumstance and reality have piled pain on Chargers supporters for a long time now. Leaving San Diego was a blow for loyalists and for a city that has one remaining major league franchise: baseball’s Padres. With the city of Los Angeles so overrun with sports franchises and a London NFL fan base eager to find some team to throw its support behind, perhaps moving them further away from their original home might actually be a boon.

Logistics pose some kind of a problem, although perhaps a little less than has been made out. Travel from the east coast is barely any different than what Seattle faces when it visits one of the Florida clubs, or vice versa. Teams counteract the time difference by simply staying on U.S. time when they arrive in London. Working out the scheduling at Tottenham — which would be shared with the English Premier League soccer club of the same name — would be relatively simple.

A bigger issue, at least for any short-term move, comes in the form of the collective bargaining agreement, which expires in 2021.

“I’ve always felt like a team couldn’t move to London until a CBA gets done, because there isn’t any provision to ask players or a team of players to play in a different country, on a different continent,” Peter King told Pro Football Talk.
Certainly, before London happens for any team, there is a lot to be worked out. The Chargers’ issues are not going to be waved away by a first-class ticket across the Atlantic. In the immediate term, they have a football game to try to win. And then another next week. And so on.

All this week’s ruckus obscures the fact that this is matchup with major appeal. On Lock It In, Clay Travis described it as a “show-me” game for both teams, and it is. The Chargers need to show that the real version of themselves is the one that beat Green Bay, not the one that found a way to lose to the woeful Denver Broncos. The Raiders, with a tasty schedule coming up, have the chance to start something special — so long as they conquer their allergy to consistency.

On Thursday, each will have a chance to alter the narrative a little. The winner can get people talking about how they’re going places as a team … and not just going to different places.