Fixing Football: League Expansion To Europe
When it comes to international expansion, the NFL faces the toughest road of the four major U.S. sports. The game’s myriad rules can be off-putting to new fans, and the sport is rarely played overseas. It also has the misfortune of sharing the name “football” with the undisputed king of worldwide sports, and some international fans wonder why it’s called football when the foot is used so rarely.
The other three sports are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Baseball, basketball, and ice hockey enjoy greater popularity overseas than in the U.S. And the grassroots love of those sports in foreign lands provides an international development system that produces some of the world’s best players. And when those players come to the U.S. it makes MLB, the NBA, and the NHL even more popular in those countries, feeding a virtuous cycle for all three leagues.
The NFL does have one advantage: there are no well-established professional American football leagues outside the U.S. But with all it is up against, the NFL can’t afford the tepid step of putting a single team in Europe. A team in London won’t be enough for a sport playing catch-up on the world stage.
If Roger Goodell wants to make the National Football League international, he can’t do that with a half-measure. It’s time to go all the way.
The NFL needs four franchises in Europe -- one each in Berlin, London, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. And Goodell should make that happen in the next five years. Be they expansion franchises, relocated teams, or a combination of both, the NFL has to go big in Europe or they might as well stay home. Here’s why...
Travel and Scheduling
If the St. Louis Rams became the London Monarchs, ten U.S. teams would have to travel to England every year -- one for each home game, including the preseason. And the Monarchs would make four or five trips across the Atlantic for their road games in the U.S. (Note: I use the Rams for demonstration purposes only, because moving them to London is the worst-case scenario for travel.)
This plan would put the London franchise at a huge disadvantage, with lots of two-game road trips, jet lag, and constant changing cities/accommodations. And for US-based teams, road trips to London would effectively wipe out their bye weeks, putting them at a disadvantage compared to teams that didn’t have to make the trip. And under the one-team scenario, that disadvantage would fall disproportionately – and unfairly -- on teams in the same division as the Monarchs. They would make the trip to London every year, no exceptions.
Contrast that scenario with an entire division based in Europe, with four teams (using their NFL Europe names): London Monarchs, Berlin Thunder, Barcelona Dragons, and Amsterdam Admirals.
Each of those teams would play six games in Europe, home and road contests with their division rivals. That means short flights and no more than one hour time changes. And their North American schedule would be just five games, which means probably two trips to the U.S. each season. (Note: they could also play their preseason games against each other, and that might spur the NFL to reduce the preseason to two games.)
Now consider how the four-team scenario affects the rest of the league. Ten U.S. teams would still have to make a single trip to Europe each season -- to play one or two games, depending on how the schedule fell that year. (Teams with two games would play back-to-back weeks in Europe.) But it would spread the burden of international travel more evenly among franchises. Four teams isn’t a perfect balance, but it’s better than having three teams make the trip every single year while others opted-out for eight years or more.
To simplify the travel equation, consider the estimated maximum mileage for the London Monarchs under each scenario:
One team in Europe: 70,000-80,000 miles and 4 trips to the U.S.
Four teams in Europe: 40,000-50,000 miles and 2 trips to the U.S.
Seems like an easy choice.
Rivalries and Passion
The 2014 FIFA World Cup reminded Americans how passionate European sports fans are. And not surprisingly, the NFL wants to tap into that enthusiasm to grow the league and the sport. But passion comes from rivalries, and what rivalries would be in place with just one team in London?
The Monarchs would have no natural rivals among U.S. teams. The team’s old rivals in the U.S. would continue their rivalry, but U.K. fans wouldn’t buy into the rivalry for years. There’s no way to invent sport passion, it just takes time. And moving one team to London wouldn’t tap into British sports passion at all.
Contrast that with four teams in Europe, where existing rivalries are beyond most of what the NFL has ever seen. Spain, England, The Netherlands, and Germany -- follow European football at all and you’ll know that every single game stirs passions that should make even the NFL green with envy. An American Football team in each country provides immediate rivalries. And those rivalries would help deliver the excitement needed to build the NFL brand.
After all, only die-hard NFL fans would stay indoors on a September Sunday to watch London vs. Chicago. But many more would make London vs. German appointment viewing. And if the NFL played its cards right, a decade later half the country might be watching.
Guaranteed Playoff Games in Europe
Very little in sports draws more attention or excitement than an NFL playoff game. The week-long build up, the one-and-done criticality of every play, not to mention seeing the best teams go head-to-head -- those are all huge factors in what makes the NFL the premiere league in the U.S. And a four-team European Division guarantees at least one playoff game in Europe every year, hosted by the division winner.
A playoff game in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, or Barcelona would give the NFL a week of media-overload attention and a rapt audience on Sunday. NFL Playoff Sunday is exactly what the league would need to ramp up interest in Europe. And imagine the audience if a team hosted two playoff games, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line the second week.
The opposing teams would be at a disadvantage, having to deal with international travel. But a guaranteed playoff game in Europe is worth its weight in gold in publicity and growth. Teams might not like it now, but it would be a boon to the sport over the long haul. And a growing sport means more money for all involved.
Overcoming Language Barriers
Currently, you can watch an NFL broadcast in English or Spanish, and in some countries there are limited broadcasts in French and Italian. But there is a real language barrier to growing the sport. Broadcasting a game in Spanish isn’t enough; you need Spanish media to write about games, to analyze the sport, and you need Spanish-speaking fans to air their passion on blogs and social media.
With that in mind, a team in London does absolutely nothing to increase language penetration. The league already enjoys saturation-coverage in English. From television to radio to the web, the NFL is everywhere -- if English is your native tongue. The European market is important, but there is a lot more potential for future growth and revenue in Spanish-speaking countries, particularly Latin America.
And the Barcelona Dragons would be a team that fans can follow, write about, talk about, and enjoy, all in Spanish. The same would go for the Berlin Thunder and German, and the Amsterdam Admirals would get coverage in Dutch. Mind you, Columbians are unlikely to rush out for coverage of the Dragons; but it is incalculably valuable to have teams covered by media and coveted by fans in other languages.
One team in London does nothing to bridge the language gap. Four teams in Europe, with four different native languages; that is a bold step forward for a league with international aspirations.
(Note: from a language standpoint, it would make sense to put a team in France. French is spoken in far more countries than Dutch or German. However, there is no history of NFL football in France; they didn’t even have an NFL Europe team. So the league has more work to do before considering a franchise there.)
- The ratings for the 9:30am Lions/Falcons game showed enough interest to put a game on every Sunday morning. That would be achieved easily with games in Europe every week.
- Additionally, U.S. games at 1:00pm Eastern Time would be a nice fit for the 7:00pm Sunday time slot in Europe, allowing the NFL to broadcast the best games each week in European markets.
- The four-team scenario also sets up the NFL nicely to expand to France, Italy, or any other European cities. They can add one team to the division, or start another division with four more teams.
- Lessons learned from the “Four-Team Expansion” model would help the league with future expansions to Australia, Asia, and South America.
To best implement the new division, the NFL should relocate two existing franchises and award two expansion franchises in Europe. The AFC and NFC would grow to 17 teams each, with three four-team divisions and one five-team division. And it makes the most sense to put the new NFL Europe Division in the AFC; as there are more east-coast teams in the AFC, thus lessening the impact of travel.
The league would likely realize over $1 billion on the expansion fees, as rich Europeans fought for the right to own a team. And including two established franchises would give the division credibility that an all-expansion division would lack. Those two existing franchises would also bring rivalries with them. And it can’t hurt to have football-crazed Americans arranging their vacations to Europe to attend games.
The league should stagger its foray into Europe, but it should be two teams one year followed by two more in the next two years after that.
International NFL expansion is inevitable. League popularity can’t increase much in the U.S. – it’s already the biggest game in town by a country mile. The NFL has to reach out to new markets to grow the sport. And though the game lags in international appeal, the league itself is well-positioned to reach new audiences overseas.
Once-a-week games allow fans to choose their own level of involvement. The sparse schedule also makes travel less of an issue than in other sports. And the knockout playoff format keeps fans on the edge of their seats for every play, from late-season games all the way through the Super Bowl.
It’s now in the hands of Roger Goodell and the owners. A bold plan can help them leapfrog MLB, the NHL, and the NBA overseas. American football won’t become more popular than baseball, hockey, or basketball. But without any established international leagues to compete with, the NFL will have a virtual monopoly in every market it enters.
One team in Europe is like wading into the pool an inch at a time. Four teams is a cannonball from the high platform that will reverberate for the next 20 years.
Your move, Mister Commissioner.