By: Bob George
Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (USA TODAY Images)
How many billions does one or more human beings need before they can be completely satisfied financially?
Raise your hand if you’d be okay with one. A half. A quarter. A tenth. A hundredth. A thousandth is still a million bucks.
But if you are an NFL owner, just one billion simply won’t do. If you own Fort Knox and discover that there are ten other Fort Knoxes in the country, you’ll break your neck to try and acquire them all. Why have more money than only Davy Crockett? I mean, let’s lop Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and a few maharajas into the mix too.
Such is the case with this outrageous idea of the NFL trying to get a franchise in London by the end of the decade. In hopes of making much more money, the NFL owners believe that expanding the NFL globally is a wonderful idea and an untapped gold mine. And the idea of going to London is incredibly appealing to the owners, particularly your favorite owner, Robert Kraft.
The NFL has had several regular season games at Wembley Stadium over the years. Your Patriots went over there in 2009 and smacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-7. The games have been well attended, and the Britons seem to like the product a lot, even in mismatches like this game was.
But putting a team over there for keeps? Eight games a year instead of one? Would that lead to a team in Paris, Berlin, Rome and Barcelona also?
First of all, wasn’t the old WLAF supposed to be the measuring rod for the viability of the NFL in Europe? The league came into being in 1991 and hung around in various formats until 2007. The league played in the spring and was used primarily as a developmental league. Americans had almost no interest in the league, especially when the league went all-Euro. Interest in the league was somewhat good in Europe, but again, it wasn’t the mainstream best players in the world. So trying to glean how well the real NFL would go over in Europe based on the WLAF might be a little bit of a stretch.
So, okay. We put a team in London. Then what?
First of all, how come nobody ever says anything about the 2005 regular season game in Mexico City between the Cardinals and the 49ers? Arizona beat San Francisco 31-14 at Aztec Stadium before a then-NFL record crowd of 103,467. That’s a crowd that you usually see in Pasadena or Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mexico City is a whole lot closer to NFL cities than London is. The only major problem there is altitude, but you deal with that when you go to Denver. It could also be that the NFL views the UK’s economy as more potentially lucrative than that of Mexico (to be fair, the second richest person in the world is Mexican), and issues like quality of life could come into play in the minds of the players and staff who would have to live there during the season.
The biggest problem with a team in London, other than sustaining interest in the UK beyond just one game, is travel logistics. San Diego is the most distant NFL city at 5,400 miles. San Francisco is 5,350 miles away, while Seattle is just under 4,800 miles. The closest airport to London is Logan International at 3,200 miles, while it is 3,400 miles to JFK in New York. In any case, you would have to put the London team in the Eastern Division of whichever conference it winds up in, and it’s still a long flight for division road games.
To make it salable for the players and staff, you would literally have to cluster home and away games together to suit the London team. For instance, don’t send them out to Denver for Week 1, then home for Week 2, then to Washington for Week 3, and so on. Their home games should be in groups of three, three and two game sets. The same should be for their road games. While on the road, they should stay in the USA and move from city to city, and make their road schedule as travel-friendly as possible. When it is time to play the NFC West, make the two road games on consecutive weeks, and ditto for the AFC West. Try to make it so that they play on the road in Seattle and San Francisco in the same year, ditto for Oakland and San Diego.
Bye weeks should be as beneficial as possible to the London team, as well as visiting teams that have to travel to Wembley. London’s bye week should perhaps be set at between Weeks 8 and 9 unless absolutely necessary. It should be between a road trip and a homestand.
Of course, even if these logistical concerns are adequately met, there is still no guarantee that this idea will be good for the NFL. Here is a nice litmus test to consider, if London and the UK are truly interested in an NFL team.
Kraft isn’t the only Boston-based owner with his foot in the door in the UK. John Henry is actually inside the parlor, as co-owner of an EPL team based in Liverpool. Liverpool is once again going to play on the Fenway Park pitch this summer. Soccer games have traditionally drawn well at Fenway.
With the 2014 World Cup now over, there has been sentiment to try and bring an English Premier League team to the United States. MLS continues to exist and grow as a second-tier professional soccer league. But NBC has been televising EPL games, including the ever-popular Manchester United, with reasonably good ratings. Forbes Magazine lists the top 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world, and the top three are soccer teams: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Man-U. The Yankees are fourth. (The Patriots are eighth, the Red Sox eleventh.) Bringing soccer at the level of the EPL to the USA is not that bad an idea, at least from the point of view of the USA.
The NFL should talk to the EPL and see if they have a mutual interest in such a venture. The EPL should pick an east coast city and put a team there and see what shakes. New York has the most people, Boston has perhaps the best soccer fans in the USA. Pick either Gillette Stadium or MetLife Stadium. If Kraft makes enough of a fuss to own an EPL team to make this experiment work, even if he were made to divest himself and his family of the Revolution, the EPL team would land in Foxborough. Otherwise it would be in the Meadowlands.
If the EPL should succeed in the USA, the NFL might have a better idea as to the viability of an NFL team in London. Of course, you’d have to convince the EPL that this would be good for them also, and as yet, that fact is not clear. Until then, the NFL would be wise to think this over carefully before they gamble on a market that may be okay for one game a year but not okay for a permanent resident.
One parting thought. Let’s say Kraft did get an EPL team. Sporting Foxborough versus Liverpool on the pitch at Gillette Stadium. Kraft versus Henry. Boston sports’ Civil War. Too good to be true.