Well, this is a first, I can’t imagine any other scenario which would involve me wanting to keep something American (something I like, anyway, they can keep the spray-on cheese) but lo and behold, here we are. I adore American football, next to rugby it’s just about my favorite sport to watch and I am delighted that the NFL International series has made it so easy for me to go and see regular season games and even offered me the chance to see my very own Atlanta Falcons lose to Detroit.
Now though, after much rumbling, the NFL has confirmed that they intend to have a team operating out of the UK by 2022. You’ll forgive me if I don’t break out the streamers and bunting. You’ll also have to forgive me when I say that I’ve heard better ideas come out of a writer’s room meeting for Two and Half Men. The NFL can, and should, cater to an international audience as much as it can, there are also plans to host the pro-bowl in Brazil and host one or several games in Germany. There’s even talk of perhaps doing the same in China at some stage. That’s all well and good, but the moment you start trying to turn the NFL into the IFL, you’re opening up a whole new hornet’s nest of problems, problems which would claim the sport’s identity, validity and appeal.
Let me set you a challenge: try and think of as many cross-continental sporting tournaments/contests as you can. Done it? Now from that list, highlight the ones which don’t take place in host nations/cities, ie the teams all play home and away games as they would on a national scale. Having trouble? That’s because it almost never happens. The only example that immediately springs to mind for my part is the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri-Nations). During that tournament Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand will bounce between each others’ home turf but that’s a short form, 7 week contest.
Bearing that in mind, try and imagine what it would be like to have to fly from the UK to America (and back) for 8 of your 16 regular season games, never mind the chaos that would ensure if you reached the playoffs. The jetlag, the time-zone adjustments, the temperature changes and everything else besides. You also have to take into consideration that even though this hypothetical team would be based in London, all the players rise to the NFL through the college (and high school) system that is ingrained into all American sports. It would take many years, moons and migraines to integrate that recruitment system into British universities and schools. We don’t do scholarships in the same way that they do. This means that the players drafted by the London Lunatics would have to relocate across the pond.
The NFL international series currently hosts 3 games per year at Wembley Stadium, each game attracts around 80,000 fans (almost a capacity crowd), almost half of them season ticket holders. That’s a lot of fans and a lot of money, but you have to bear in mind that those fans are there to support the sport more than the teams. Let me explain, if you went to see the Cowboys play the Jaguars in Dallas, you would see a sea of blue and silver, intermingled with a smattering of teal, black and gold. If you went to see the same game in Jacksonville, vice versa. When that game was hosted in Wembley last November (despite the Jaguars being represented as the ‘home team’) the stadium was a rainbow of jerseys representing every team in the NFL and more besides. It’s not about showing up to support a specific team at the Wembley games, it’s about celebrating football.
80,000 fans per game is impressive. You would not be seeing those numbers if London were hosting 8 games a year, all of them dedicated to the same team. Also, it wouldn’t be Wembley, it’s needed for other things and there have already been complaints about how much damage the international games do to the turf. There is some argument that English support of soccer on an international scale is slipping (mostly for reasons of we suck) and that support has to go somewhere, but American football isn’t it. It’s a big niche, but it’s still a niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Really and truly, if the NFL are so dead-set on taking the sport to an wider international platform, it should use the money it’s planning on pouring into this futile venture and use it to help better the leagues that already exist elsewhere in the world. We have one here, Germany has one, Mexico, Canada, Japan and many others do as well. It will be a long, long time before any of them play at a standard that can match the NFL, but if more money and exposure is afforded, international tournaments could well be feasible. Even then, the American team would win with little difficulty, but it would set the mold for a wider, more interesting stage for the sport.
American football is glorious. It’s engaging, complex and dramatic, it’s also quintessentially American. Nobody is under any illusions about that and nobody wants to see the NFL cripple itself to pander to a global market in a way that the market doesn’t even really want. The international games are a gift, when you buy someone a box of chocolates and see that they appreciate it, you don’t open a new chocolate shop next to their house. It’s unlikely that the NFL will have a change of heart about this now, they’re historically pretty stubborn once they think they’re on to a good idea, but I can still hope.
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