On Sunday the NFL played the first of three regular season games at London's Wembley Stadium. The first game featured the Miami Dolphins defeating the Oakland Raiders 38-14. Next month the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons head overseas for a kickoff that will be in the afternoon in London but a very early morning kickoff in the states. The last game happens the Sunday after Election Day when the Jacksonville Jaguars who have agreed to surrender a home game for the next two seasons to play in London against the Dallas Cowboys.
This experiment of playing a regular season NFL game overseas has to stop.
This concept has its roots in when the NFL used to play preseason games in international locales. From 1986 until 2005 with the exception of 2004, there were preseason games played in Europe, Mexico, Canada, Japan, and in August 1999 the NFL had the Chargers and Broncos play a pre-season game in Sydney, Australia.
The NFL discontinued this practice of playing these games because the quality was not the same as regular season games. Even though these games were played in another country, they were still pre-season games. International fans would come to these games to see Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Jim Kelly, Thurmond Thomas, Brett Favre, Reggie White, the Bears 46 defense, John Elway, Dan Marino, and other star players but since this was a pre-season these players would play at most one quarter and then the backups would come in for the rest of the game.
The last time I watched a full preseason game MIGHT have been when I was a kid.
In 2005, the NFL played its first international regular season game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City. The attendance of 103,467 broke the regular season mark that was held for 48 years. That mark was broken in September 2009 for the regular season debut of Jerry World between the Giants and Cowboys.
Due to the political instability in Mexico, the NFL turned its focus towards Europe specifically London. Since 2007 the NFL has played one regular season contest in London typically at the midpoint of the season so that the contest has some relevance. It also fans the flames that the NFL will have a team in London either by relocation or expansion. According to NBC Sports' Pro Football Talk, Mark Waller in his role as the NFL's head of its international division believes that there could be a London team as early as 2022 which is when the current television contract and the collective bargaining agreement expire.
So let's look at the first option: Relocation.
The Buffalo Bills have been part of the NFL's international experiment from 2008 to 2013. played regular season games in Toronto in order to boost their profile in Eastern Ontario. Usually these games were played after the Canadian Football League finished their season in November, but by the time the Bills were at their Toronto game they were out of playoff contention and fan the rumors that the team was relocating to Toronto. Their record in the six season experiment in Toronto: 1-5. Their only win was a 23-0 shutout of Washington in October 2011.
Then there is the issue of angering a fan base. You do not relocate an established franchise such as the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, and so on. Ask anyone who was in Cleveland in 1995 when then-owner Art Modell announced he was moving the Browns to Baltimore and renamed them the Ravens. At least the Browns got to keep their history and returned to the NFL in 1999, but the Ravens have won 2 Super Bowls since then while the Browns have not won a playoff game since 1994. Probably the one team that could relocate to London would be the Jacksonville Jaguars. After all they are giving up a home game for the next two seasons.
The other option is expansion. A 33-team league would create an unbalanced schedule where one team would have to have an off week. Anyone remember the NFL schedules from 1999 to 2001 where one team would play Weeks 1-16 while another played Weeks 2-17? (raises hand) But that is the least of the worries.
An expansion team takes time. The Cowboys in 1960 went 0-11-1 and did see an above .500 record until their 7th season. The Vikings won their first ever regular season game in 1961, but did not make the playoffs until 1968. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their first 26 games. Then saw success with playoff appearances in 1979, 1981, and the strike shortened season of 1982, but posted double digit loses in 13 of the next 14 seasons. The Steelers were founded in 1933 and did not win a playoff game until AFTER the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The New Orleans Saints started play in 1967. Twenty years later they made the playoffs. The season they finally won a playoff game: 2000.
The Panthers and Jaguars made the playoffs and played in the NFC and AFC Championship Games in their second season after entering the league in 1995. Jacksonville had early success as they were a playoff team from 1996-99 before becoming the laughing stocks they are now. Carolina has had 5 winning seasons, 11 losing seasons, and 3 seasons finishing at .500.
Like the Minnesota Vikings, Houston won their first ever regular season game. It took them until their 10th season in the league to make the playoffs.
The NFL will cite that at an average of 80,000 people will attend these three games. The Dolphins and Raiders, despite their performances over the last few seasons and current records, have deep fan bases and is a historic rivalry. The Falcons and Lions feature Matt Ryan and his receiving corps and the quarterback-receiver duo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Jaguars and Cowboys has…. the Dallas Cowboys, and that's about it.
An expansion team might has some allure at first, but it will wear off and eventually the team might have problem selling the game out. Can you imagine the London team playing in a near empty stadium or becoming the place where the opposing team pack the stadium with their fans giving that team a so-called 9th home game (ahem, Jerry World in Week 1 against the 49ers). The Jaguars have trouble avoiding the outdated NFL blackout rules as do the Dolphins and Raiders. Even if the Jaguars were playing their game in Jacksonville as originally scheduled, it is very likely that the crowd would have been a pro-Cowboys crowd.
Lastly there is the issue of logistics.
The Raiders played in New England last Sunday while the Dolphins had a home game against the Chiefs. After this game, both teams will have a bye week. After the Lions and Falcons London game, both will return to the states heading into their bye week. As will the Cowboys and Jaguars in November.
A London NFL team would have to play 8 straight home games in London that could only air on Sundays in the early games window followed by an off week to adjust to the time change in the states and then 8 road games with a headquarters in the states when in between games. Then there is the issue if the London team makes the playoffs. As one of the two wild card teams they would spend the playoffs on the road, but winning the division could create some problems when it comes to traveling throughout the playoffs as for the teams traveling to London and returning to play a game for the next week. The team that didn't play in London would have a competitive advantage.
Other issues involving logistics include players having to relocate their families to London, passports (which isn't that hard to get, I got one after I was discharged from active duty) and a work permit, getting paid and navigating the tax laws in another country, maintaining the field quality to NFL standards (Wembley Stadium is a soccer field), and the team attracting free agents.
Once again the NFL will point out the attendance and that their games air on international sports channels.
So, when will soccer finally take off in this country?
In 1994, the World Cup soccer tournament took place in various stadiums across the United States. The stadiums where these soccer games were held in were football stadiums and they were able to fill to capacity. I remember a couple of qualifying round matches being held at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Instantly people were saying that soccer was going to compete with the big four of the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL.
While Major League Soccer has been around for 20 years, they learned the lessons of the old North American Soccer League of the 1970s of expanding slowly, I know that Denver has a professional soccer team because I heard about it in the local news and they play their games in the Adams County town of Commerce City. The only times that people in this country pay attention to soccer is when the men's and women's national teams are competing in their respective tournaments and the Olympics (raises hand that I watched the World Cup in 2014).
The problem with soccer trying to gain some ground among the sports leagues in the United States. Already there is both professional and college football and basketball, major league baseball, and to some extent hockey. Soccer just does not fit into the equation.
And that is the same problem with the American version of football. Europe, especially England, already has an 800-pound sport: football… er, soccer.
Yes other American sports have done well in international markets. Basketball is popular in other parts of the world in part due to the NBA having successfully exporting the game to other parts of the world and bringing in talent to play in the states. Take a look at the nationalities of the Spurs. Hockey is probably the best example of international success, but it was already an international game to begin with having originated in Canada. The hockey tournament in the Winter Olympics is the de facto All-Star Competition and Game when the NHL goes on hiatus to allow their players to participate. Baseball, though at first failed to catch on in Europe in early part of the game's history, has been a big success in Japan.
The only reason why the NFL is looking at London is to produce another revenue stream. Europe already has THEIR sport, soccer.
These games have lost their luster and uniqueness. Perhaps if these games were played every couple of years it would be something of interest, but three London this season is beyond over the top.
This experiment and gimmick of playing regular season sports overseas needs to end.