It’s been 10 years since the NFL played its first regular season game in London. This season, the league ramped up the schedule to include four games. The last one is this Sunday between the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns. The NFL continues to establish a presence in England, which leaves people wondering if the plan is to bring an NFL team across the pond permanently.
The NFL’s executive vice president for international, Mark Waller, believes London is ready for an NFL franchise now, according to The MMQB’s Albert Breer. And the league may try to put a team there as early as the 2022 season.
So London could get an NFL team? Sure, because that’s the league’s end game. But even though the NFL wants to make that happen, there are still plenty of obstacles to housing a team across the ocean permanently, primarily travel. The London team would presumably have to go back to the United States for eight games a year, while its divisional opponents would each have to go overseas once a year.
All four games in London — two at Wembley Stadium, and two at Twickenham — sold out for this season. That’s about 300,000 fans, and 40,000 people bought tickets to all four games. They’re as close to season ticket holders as this international series gets.
Waller says the interest shows that it could work.
"If you think of that [number] in terms of season-ticket membership and season-ticket base," Waller said via ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, "that's a really good indicator of the depth of fandom."
How would that impact teams? It would be significant. Right now, the league plans London games based on teams’ bye weeks, which gives players a bit of a break after intercontinental travel for a game. That’s a lot harder to pull off for visiting teams with a London team hosting eight games there. And traveling to the U.S. for eight games a season would be difficult for London’s players.
Waller has a plan to try to gauge how well this could work.
“The one thing we can’t show yet: can a team be competitive week in and week out? That’s why I’d like to do back-to-back weeks with the same team (next year), to get real sense of how that works. We’ll try to make that happen,” Waller said, via Breer.
But even if it does seem feasible, the league would still have to find an owner who is willing to uproot his team and make a permanent move to London. That’s a tall order.
That sounds logistically impossible, doesn’t it? Yes, but there’s another option — one that may be more likely and would certainly be easier to pull off. The NFL could expand its London slate to eight games. That would mean half the NFL’s 32 teams would play in the UK one year, and the other half would play the following year.
Fans in England could then have a full slate of home games, and the interest is there, based on the response to the existing London schedule. Bringing in 16 different teams each year would keep the travel from being an unfair burden on any one team and would let the league continue to plan bye weeks around that.
It’s not just the travel that would be an obstacle to a team relocating permanently to London. There could be international antitrust and labor issues that would arise. And it’s hard to discount the fact that NFL games are new and exciting for fans in the UK, which may be a factor in its popularity.
London fans have become attached to many different NFL teams. If a franchise is moved to London, the league would be asking a large number of those fans to sacrifice those loyalties and support a different team.
Establishing a “virtual franchise” by giving London fans a full slate of eight home games to enjoy featuring different teams is probably the league’s smartest and most viable option. But if it does happen, it won’t be right away. Right now, the NFL plans to remain at four London games next season.