London Calling? NFL Should End Eurofixation
They already play football in London. We call it soccer, but they know it as religion, existentialism, the rhythm of life. We may think American football is all that, but the football we call soccer is by far the biggest sport in the world, be reminded, and it makes our football seem like a pimple on the ass of an unalterably established, universally imbedded black-and-white-paneled sphere.
So why does the NFL persist in pushing its product overseas when it is viewed around the world as a brutalized, distinctively American exercise of blood, gore and concussion-driven death? Basketball is a global sport, making it wise for the NBA to market internationally. Baseball is huge in Asia and Spanish-speaking nations, making it smart for MLB to market internationally.
American football is a novelty, like a Broadway play setting up in the West End, or Beyonce coming to The O2 for shows. And it’s pretty clear by now, after seven straight years of regular-season games at Wembley Stadium and several decades of playing preseason games across the globe, that the NFL never will become a way of life beyond our borders. Oh, the games sell out in London, and the TV ratings are decent enough. But if the grand design of commissioner Roger Goodell is to place a permanent franchise in London by decade’s end, I suggest he check with the league’s very own managing director of operations in the United Kingdom. One Alistair Kirkwood was asked last week how much the fan base would have to grow for London to support its own NFL team.
“A tripling,” he said.
Meaning, after so much work and effort through time, the league has about half the support in London that it does in Jacksonville, which is considered a problem spot. The odd hook is that the Jaguars — owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the Fulham team in the Premier League and gained recent cred by removing the god-awful Michael Jackson stadium statue installed by previous owner Mohamed al-Fayed — are considered the one NFL team that could move to London. Goodell is facing steadfest opposition from all sides, including powerful franchise owners who don’t want a European team sapping their revenue base. A lot of players, too, wouldn’t like the idea of moving to Europe year-round. And what of the logistical issues — not only the teams traveling to London, but 10 U.S. road games (regular season and preseason) for the London team?
“You can quote me. I would be absolutely livid,” said Rams defensive end Chris Long, sharing his sentiments with ESPN.com about a full-time team in London. “I love growing our sport globally, but logistically to put a team through that would be like punishment. They have great fans there and they were super enthusiastic and awesome to everyone when we were there, but to ask people to take those road trips every time they do an away game is just ludicrous.”
The concept simply isn’t well thought-out, particularly for a league that projects its current $10 billion annual revenues to reach $25 billion by 2025. Somehow, the London folly remains a high priority, with the Jaguars agreeing to play a game per season at Wembley through 2016 and the NFL adding a second game this year, with plans for a third next season. Goodell is in denial, saying, “We are going to be aggressive because we see the fans’ reactions to football and we want to be there on a more regular basis.”
Here’s a better idea, commissioner: Priortitize the enormous issues in your kingdom back home, such as the concussions crisis and the rash of players who can’t avoid serious off-the-field trouble. Rethink your recent proposal of more postseason games and fewer preseason games, which is good in how it eliminates useless August scrums but bad in how it adds more games and increases injury risks. As for relocation efforts, there is a massive market on America’s west coast called Los Angeles, and it could support one or two teams with its 13-million population base if the Jaguars go bust in Jacksonville, the Rams fail in their St. Louis stadium demands and/or the Chargers finally feel like moving from a medium market to a massive one.
For those who cared — and wouldn’t we have preferred the Seattle-Houston game on the national feed Sunday than the force-fed London game? — the Vikings beat the Steelers, 34-27. It means the Vikings are 1-3 and the Steelers 0-4 for the first time since their pre-dynasty days of 1968. I’ve got to doubt the Brits are referring to Ben Roethlisberger as “Big Ben” today. Now, London gets to watch the 0-4 Jaguars for the first of four annual visits. Said Kirkwood, trying way too hard to sell a non-existent story line: “”You’re going to get a very interesting story no matter what team plays. We’ll be able to track the Jaguars and see how they grow going forward.”
This is not the way to sell NFL football.
This is going to make the Euros repel, which would be bloody fine with me.