“I think the next step will be multiple games (in Europe). And if that’s successful then I think the idea of a franchise here is realistic.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – October 31st 2010.
A lot has changed in the last four years for a fan of American Football in the UK. We have shifted from gazing, bug-eyed, at Channel 5 in the early hours of a Monday morning at a game thousands of miles away, all the way to hosting four of our very-own regular season match-ups, welcoming future Superbowl Champions and MVPs to future hall-of-famers onto Wembley’s hallowed turf. What began in 2007 as a novelty is now an annual celebration of the UK’s love affair with the sport, and the reputation of the UK’s own fans in terms of commitment and knowledge of the game has grown exponentially worldwide.
As with any successful business venture, the man at the helm of all of this seems eager to capitalise, and further the spread of the NFL brand outside of the US. The idea of multiple games in Europe has been mooted since the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers fixture in 2008, and would seem a certainty for next year had it not been for the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiration causing a probable lack of an NFL season at all in 2011. After seemingly rubber-stamping the multiple games in the future in recent interviews, Goodell has begun to entertain the idea of an entire franchise in the UK. Somewhat unthinkable four years ago, the notion has left fans in this country split on several issues surrounding an expansion franchise in their own back yard, with the line drawn between consuming all the football we can as a nation, and what would be best for the future of the game in this country and indeed the sport itself in the US. What may surprise Commissioner Goodell is that a large amount of comments from fans via Internet streams and television in this country stray towards being opposed to the idea, and there are several good reasons for this.
Firstly, any new team, anywhere in the world, in any sport, needs new fans. The vast majority of NFL fans in this country already align themselves with a team, for possible sentimental reasons if not geographical ones. If the league is expanded to incorporate a London franchise instead of a current team shifting location over the pond, the willingness of fans in the UK to automatically shift their support to their ‘home’ team will be severely tested. Incorporated within this issue stands the fact that, of the 85,000 regulars at Wembley Stadium in the last four years, a fair proportion have no sense of belonging to the identity and moniker of ‘London’ at all. Many travel from other areas of Western Europe, many from other areas of the UK, and not only may these NFL fans not find the desire to support a franchise in London, but may actually see the London team as a ‘rival’ to the teams they have supported all along. Roger Goodell may have underestimated two major factors: the fact that a large amount of European NFL are fanatics of their US teams already, and despite the UK being a smaller landmass than the homeland of the sport, local rivalries still apply as much as they do in the US. The idea of a London franchise being fanatically supported by all of Europe seems optimistic at best.
Even if a London franchise is able to gain a fan-base on its introduction to the NFL, a more difficult challenge would also lie ahead to maintain such a fan-base, once the novelty of regular live football in this country dies away. Compare the case to that of Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League. Promoted to the top-flight in 2005, their inaugural home game against reigning champions Chelsea sold out the JJB Stadium, a venue largely intended for rugby league in a town obsessed with the sport. Since the novelty of playing at the highest level has worn off in recent years in a town that cares little for football, their attendances have dwindled, leaving the stadium flooded with empty seats on an average Saturday. A similar scenario for a London-based franchise would be disastrous in terms of the image of the game in this country and the financial stability of the franchise itself. London is currently proud of its recent history in selling out regular season games at Wembley and creating an atmosphere that players enjoy playing in whilst looking and sounding good on television in the US. A half-filled stadium, similar to that seen in Toronto for the struggling Buffalo Bills recently, would make a mockery of the hard work UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood and all fans in the UK have indulged in to build the reputation of the game overseas.
Whilst speaking of financial implications for the franchise, there is also a notion Goodell must consider the financial implications for the fans in this country themselves. Tickets for each Wembley game range from £55 to thousands of pounds for the box seats, leaving fans far more out of pocket than the majority of soccer matches would in this country. Many fans are even questioning whether they can muster the financial resources to attend a second game within a season at Wembley, therefore the idea of eight home games in four months, combined with travel from all over the country/continent, seems an unfathomable one. A franchise continuing in spite of this may leave fans disillusioned with the idea, leaving stadiums unfilled, the team unsupported and, in turn, the franchise unsuccessful.
Finally, on a slightly more sentimental note, NFL fans in the UK have their own tradition in watching American Football. The tradition is a world apart from the US, but is a tradition all the same. We don’t go to games, we don’t go to tailgates, and we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving around a triple-header. But we do gather on a Sunday night for nine hours of football, we do stay up until 5am to watch our teams and then go to work on a Monday morning, and we enjoy the exoticism of supporting and watching teams in cities many of us have never, and may never, visit. The International Series has become a welcome part of this tradition in recent years, and has been overwhelmingly accepted by fans in this country as a way to become further in touch with the sport itself. A franchise of our own, however, may be a step too far. Under-supported and devalued, it may even serve as a detriment to the traditions that we currently indulge in, taking away our cosy Sunday nights of football and replacing it with what may be just a pale imitation of the real thing seen across the water.
Keep bringing us regular season games, Mr Goodell. In fact, you can even bring two. If you feel that way inclined, you are certainly welcome to even bring us a Superbowl. But as far as a franchise goes, I would personally appreciate the offer, yet say thanks, but no thanks.