In a sign of its determination to bring football to the sport-impoverished people of the world, the NFL announced Tuesday that it would host three games in London next season.
Yes, no longer will British sports fans have to settle merely for soccer, rugby, and cricket. The move is a concrete extension of the NFL's efforts to build interest in American football abroad — with the ultimate goal of plopping a franchise in England as well.
"Our fans in the U.K. have continued to demonstrate that they love football and want more," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
Except that a London-based team, though a potential moneymaker for the NFL itself, would be awful for the game as a whole.
Let's start with the fact that selling American football to the Brits would be a heavy lift. While other major American pro sports are played extensively around the world, football remains primarily confined to North America. MLB teams scout Dominican teenagers, and the league hosts the annual World Baseball Classic. Even casual sports fans know the names of NBA imports Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tony Parker.
There is simply no parallel with football.
For the NFL to launch a sustainable European team, it would first have to "create and embed a culture of American football in overseas territories," sports business analyst Simon Chadwick told CNN. Meaning the NFL would need to convince soccer-loving Londoners to even care about football before it could have a toehold to launch a permanent overseas franchise.
Sure, NFL contests staged at London's historic Wembley Stadium have quickly sold out, a sign, the league claims, that there is ample interest there in the sport.
But given their rarity and huge promotional boosting, those games are little more than gimmicks. It's hardly a given that fans would pony up the cash for season tickets, or that businesses would risk dropping big money on sponsorships and luxury boxes.
Similar events in U.S. stadiums pitting British soccer titans against each other have also sold out. Yet the U.S.'s flagship soccer league barely registers with most American sports fans, and jingoistic politicians have scored points assailing the sport as "socialistic."
There is precedent for football in Europe, though it, too, makes the prospect of a London team sound foolish and doomed. The league-backed NFL Europa went bust in 2007 after a miserable, unpopular run.
However, the best argument against the NFL's English push is that an English team would be terrible for the sport. Even if a sliver of London's fanatic soccer base switched to football, the logistics involved in stationing an NFL team there would be hellish. The travel alone would be horrendously disruptive — imagine a London team flying to, say, Oakland for a Saturday afternoon game, then all the way back for a home tilt the next week. For that reason, a number of NFL players have said they would flat out refuse to play for a European team.
Given all the logistical and cultural hurdles, football in London remains a pie-eyed dream. Its main goal is to boost league revenue, but that will come at the expense of the players. If the NFL is so determined to expand, it could do much better by targeting cities within the U.S. that already have the infrastructure and fans necessary to support a franchise.
I hear Los Angeles is looking for a team.
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