- By Chris Edbrook
The first NFL regular season game to be held outside of North America took place in London in 2007, when the Miami Dolphins beat the New York Giants 13-10 at Wembley Stadium. 13 years and 28 London games later, the popularity of the NFL within the UK has grown exponentially and the prospect of a London franchise appears to be closer than ever. The league believes it has done everything it can to enable the formation of a London franchise, but an owner is yet to risk taking their franchise across the pond. But why? Do the risks outweigh the potential benefits? And why London?
Discussions of a London NFL franchise first began in the 2000s, after its UK popularity was discovered following the launch of the International Series. NFL research suggests that there are approximately 15 million NFL fans within the UK (22% of the population), whilst more than 289,000 fans attended the four London games in 2019 - an average of 72,260 fans per game. This would make London the NFL’s 7th biggest market in terms of average attendances - only behind the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints.
Not only are live viewership figures within the UK similar to current NFL franchises, but broadcasting figures are equally as impressive. League data showed that overnight TV viewership (including Sky Sports’ RedZone) rose by 32% in 2018, whilst figures of Sunday Night Football in 2020 have risen by 8% compared to 2019. Viewership figures in the UK are also said to be assisted by the Premier League, particularly due to their aligning schedules. Digital engagement has increased significantly too, up 54% annually across the NFL’s digital content and media rights portfolio.
Commercially, the UK is the fastest growing market for the NFL by some distance - highlighted by the increasing number of commercial partners signed within the UK. The NFL has 12 brands among its UK sponsors, including BOSE, Bud Light, FedEx, Microsoft, Pepsi MAX, Subway and VISA. In September 2020, the NFL signed its first transatlantic sponsorship deal, as 888sports became the league’s first official sports betting partner in the UK and Ireland. The Jacksonville Jaguars are rumoured to be the franchise closest to making the move to London, perhaps due to owner Shad Khan owning Fulham FC as well - the Jaguars also have four UK partners of their own. They were scheduled to have 2 home games in London for the 2020 season, before all London fixtures were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There is certainly scope for a London franchise given the UK’s commercial potential and the size of its fanbase, however there are clear logistical difficulties associated with any relocation. A franchise deciding to relocate to the UK would be faced with issues relating to travel and time difference. A new London franchise would be heavily disadvantaged when travelling for away games in the US, particularly playing west coast teams, and overcoming the 8 hour time difference.
Making the trip across the pond every other week for 4 months would inevitably take its toll on a franchise’s squad. Currently when a team travels to play in a London fixture, they receive a bye week the following week - this raises the question, could a London team be required to have a bye week after every away fixture? Or would this give a UK-based franchise an unfair advantage over US franchises? This is arguably the most significant issue that would have to be resolved prior to a franchise relocation.
A London franchise may also find it more difficult to attract the top players, coaches and staff. The prospect of moving to the UK may be a difficult decision for many individuals to make, particularly if families are having to make the move as well. Not only this, players drafted from college may not want to relocate to London but also may not have a choice. This could cause problems for the relocating franchise, particularly if they are only able to recruit players, coaches and staff who are willing to relocate themselves and their families to the UK.
There are also structural issues relating to the league that must be considered before a relocation is confirmed. Although the NFL previously stated that they would fully support the relocation of a franchise to the UK, there are still issues relating to the restructuring of the divisions, whilst post-season games may also be significantly affected. Divisions may be required to realign (depending on which franchise moves), particularly if a team from the west opts to relocate. Post-season could also pose an issue in terms of home advantage.
If a London-based franchise were to make the playoffs and hosted a home tie, they would have a significant advantage over an away team travelling over 3,000 miles and having played a game less than a week before. Similarly, this would be equally as unfair if a London franchise were required to travel to the US, resulting in reduced preparation & recovery time.
All in all, it is clear that the UK already has the infrastructure, fanbase and commercial potential for a franchise to relocate. Considering the growing fanbase, not only in the UK but also within Europe, it appears as if a UK-based NFL team could be hugely successful and well supported. However, there are multiple logistical challenges that must be overcome before a relocation can take place.
Although the foundations appear to be in place for a team to make the move imminently, there are many stakeholders that need to be consulted and satisfied first (franchises, the league, fans, broadcasters, sponsors, etc.). As a result, it seems unlikely that a franchise relocation to the UK will occur in the next few years, particularly amidst the ongoing global pandemic.