Keith Strudler: The NFL In Europe?
Full disclosure here: I’m in Italy right now and fully aware of just how little Italians care about American football, among other American passions like SUV’s and Dunkin Donuts. But I expect that to change for me next week, when I head to London. That’s at least according to reports that the NFL will now play four games a year on British fields, adding games at Twickenham Stadium, a London Rugby facility, to its current lot at the more sophisticated Wimbley. And more could come starting 2018 when the soccer club Tottenham Hotspur finishes their new building in north London. All said, unlike the Italians, the Brits will get a full complement of American style football from an assortment of teams. So unlike, say, people in Cleveland, British football fans aren’t stuck with a perennial loser. Perhaps see London as the buffet of the NFL.
Obviously, each game overseas is one lost for each traveling squad, particularly the one that cedes a home contest for their experience. It’s not that unlike college – when you study abroad, you can’t be on the school chess team that semester. It also comes with jetlag and aggravation that’s an inherent part of crossing an ocean instead of a state border. Despite that, several teams have wanted to go global, and for a variety of reasons. Some hope to grow their fan base, others are part of a multi-national ownership group, like the St. Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two teams that could use a few more supporters – not to mention capable quarterbacks. While some sports – let’s take baseball – seem to abhor playing in Europe or Asia, American football teams are more smitten by the experience. Perhaps that’s the difference between a sport that plays 162 games and one that plays 16. You have a bit more time for leisure travel.
According to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, this fondness of our closest European ally is no passing fancy. Beyond increasing the number of games American teams play overseas, something of a stadium rental situation, Goodell has intensified the league’s interest in a permanent residence, in the way of locating an actual NFL franchise in London. This isn’t entirely a new idea, and it’s been a discussion piece since the collapse of NFL Europe in 2007. But the rhetoric has intensified in recent days, with Goodell offering a timeline of the next five to 10 years, not some mythic someday in the future. It’s likely to be an existing franchise with a dwindling fan base – Jacksonville, I’d be worried. Which leads to the odd question, which city will have an NFL franchise first, London or Los Angeles?
American football is doing to Europe what actual football has been doing to the US for several years. They’re immigrating. Not only are American professional soccer teams holding their own, there’s a generation of young American sports fans that follow European soccer religiously. That’s a product of many different factors, ranging from the proliferation of Internet based sports media to the increasingly niche based culture of American sports fans. Where baseball, basketball, and football were once dividers of the US calendar year, now Americans can treat spectator sport like a dim sum menu. To contest that, American football and the NFL must also fight the war for eyes and dollars on foreign soil. While playing a few games there is nice, having a permanent resident would be far more opportunistic. And risky, I suppose. Americans have always fancied world domination, but whether gridiron fans will tolerate high tea is yet to be seen. And who knows if British sports fans and corporations will pour dollars into an NFL team when it’s a regular fixture instead of a novelty item. It’s like the weekend fling vs. the long-term relationship. As we all know, they’re not really the same.
But at the very least, this intensifying prospect has thrown the US into the global sports world that other nations have inhabited for decades. Over here in Italy, Italian soccer clubs regularly play teams from England, Spain, and all over the continent in chase of some cup or another. That’s a stark contrast from American sports business, where we have leagues of essentially American franchises – and maybe a Canadian one here and there – and call the winner the World Champion. Now, if the NFL and other American sports leagues follow suit, they might actually be able to mean it. I can’t say for sure if NFL London will work long term. But I can say the US can’t home grow many more football fans. So it’s not simply a choice. At some level, it’s a matter of pure economic survival. Now as for NFL Italy, that’s a tougher road. Until I see Dunkin Donuts around the corner here, I’d say American football will have to wait.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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