Surely but slowly, NFL inching forward on permanent London franchise

NFL At Wembley

When Roger Goodell took over as NFL commissioner in 2006 he had three clear priorities: deal with a festering labor dispute, decide which teams would play in Los Angeles and see if it was possible to put a team in London. Then came the link between head trauma and long-term effects on players’ health and Goodell’s plan was derailed.

But over time Goodell has made progress on his initial agenda. The lockout in 2011 created a tentative peace with the players’ union and Los Angeles has finally been resolved enough that London is now a top priority. The next few years will be critical toward deciding what the NFL ultimately wants to do in the UK.

Friday’s announcement that the NFL will play a Monday Night Football game in Mexico City on 21 November should not be interpreted as a sign the league is looking to put a team in Mexico. Rather, it is a piece of a larger experiment to extend the game beyond the borders of the 48 contiguous states and expand the game into new markets. The regular-season game the league will play in Mexico are more a showcase in a neighboring country where the NFL has long tried to build a fanbase.

London remains the place where the league is interested in placing a franchise several league sources said Friday.

“It’s not dead at all,” replied Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt, he head of the league’s international committee, when asked if the NFL was still serious about an actual franchise in London as opposed to a series of games.

The momentum that seemed to stall toward putting a team in London is pushing forward again, albeit slowly. This is not a league that moves quickly. “Look, it took us 20 years to get a team in LA,” one NFL executive said on Friday. A long list of logistical issues remain before the NFL could transfer a team or create a new one in London but there are definite signs that a top priority is finding answers for those problems.

One of the biggest concerns league officials have is in making sure that teams don’t feel a competitive disadvantage when playing in London. Hunt said clubs that have gone to the UK in recent years have said they did not find the experience to be nearly as big a distraction as they thought it might be. But so far the London games have been a bit of a controlled experience.

The NFL has been sure to schedule bye weeks after the games for those teams that have gone to London, but as the league adds more games in the UK they won’t be able to guarantee byes for every club. Someone soon, perhaps as early as this fall, is going to have to play the Sunday after a London game. What will happen when one does? Will the coaches and players complain? Will this frighten other teams from agreeing to go overseas? Does the movement toward putting a team in London then come to a stop?

“If our teams aren’t comfortable with the strategy then the strategy will fall apart,” Mark Waller, the NFL’s vice president in charge of international operations.

Answering this question is one of the immediate priorities for the league as it slowly pushes toward a London resolution.

On Friday, Goodell said he was thrilled the three NFL games in London next season have already sold out and said the league’s full-time move to the city could be “a realistic possibility” if there continues to be an enthusiasm for the NFL. But privately, league executives are overwhelmed by the amount of excitement they have found for the NFL in London and are cautiously optimistic that they have a true base of fans in the UK. One official pulled out a phone and showed a picture he has kept for 2½ years of the throng of people who filled Regent Street in London before one of the 2013 games.

“Not all of those were expats,” he said.

The same official said the next step for the NFL is to gradually push the number of games in London to eight – the amount of home games a team will play in a regular season. The hope is to do this over the next few seasons. If the NFL can sell out eight games in a year, with fans continuing to show the same enthusiasm as they appear to do now, then – he said – the NFL can seriously move toward putting a team in London.

Selling out eight games instead of three is a huge step. A lot has to happen in the next few years. Scheduling eight random games in a season will be hard. Waller said he couldn’t pull together a fourth London game this year because he couldn’t find a team willing to give up a home game. He said he has not approached a team about playing in the UK without a bye but admitted that it will eventually have to happen, even if that test doesn’t come this year.

But the league is at least ready to answer these questions now. The Rams’ move to Los Angeles has freed Goodell to pursue the last big project on his list. Maybe the NFL ultimately decides they can’t put a team in London, but they are moving forward on finally answering whether they can.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Les Carpenter in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Saturday 6th February 2016 05.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010