by Simon Jolly
Why would the NFL want to keep transplanting teams for “home” games in London?
Perhaps, to paraphrase former US president Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid”. As any undergraduate economist will tell you, growth is the only way of keeping the wolf of economic decline from the door: good business practice would suggest the NFL is always trying to identify fresh revenue streams.
And when a league with as much financial muscle as the NFL catches sight of one of the world’s richest cities across the pond, the courtship is only ever likely to develop in one direction: one game a year from 2007 to 2012, two in 2013, three in 2014 and eight a year (plus possible home playoffs) should the rumoured London NFL franchise ever materialise.
Each time one of these International Series games is held in England, tens of thousands of British NFL fans — whose weekly exposure to the game is restricted to the broadcast media — descend on London, bedecked in the blaze of primary colours of their favourite NFL team.
Common sense would suggest NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has cast more than the odd lascivious glance at the intense tribalism that courses through that other kind of football, the one the rest of the world has an annoying habit of preferring. All those fanatically dedicated fans with easy credit…
Therein, however, lies the rub. Despite the popularity of the London NFL games, the historic portents are not auspicious. Originally distributed amongst several European countries, by the time of its demise five of the six NFL Europe teams were resident in Germany (the sixth, the Amsterdam Admirals, remained steadfastly outside Germany, perhaps simply as a way of restoking a certain national enmity…).
Britain could sustain neither the Monarchs nor the Claymores. And Germany, with its language barrier and longer flights, is unlikely to be that attractive to the NFL.
But surely, runs the argument, fans are more willing to pay to watch the real thing than the NFL-Lite with which they were served by NFL Europe: how many UK fans would pay to watch Arena Football or the CFL?
Well, yes and no.
For a start, however much the NFL hopes to reverse it, American Football is very much a minority sport in the UK. Any fan who foregoes the native sports available on their doorstep — and the associated weight of cultural understanding — in favour of something glamorous from distant shores has something of the outsider about them.
This is clearest amongst the tiny minority who actually play the game on these shores: from personal experience of playing the game at every level in the UK, from youth to senior and university in between, rarely does someone seek to play American Football without first feeling the urge to step outside the traditional sports.
No, American Football is very likely to remain a niche sport in the UK. Which leaves the NFL relying on that same hardcore UK fan base, those who subscribe to Sky Sports just for the four months of NFL on Sunday nights, who would not spend four hours clad in helmet and shoulder pads on a Sunday afternoon but have no qualms about spending double that time confined to the sofa into the wee small hours every year for the Super Bowl, who could tell you why Sam Mills and Dexter Coakley and Zach Thomas made it as NFL Linebackers but Brian Bosworth did not, who have a wardrobe full of all the merchandising paraphernalia that so inflames the Commissioner’s passions.
But there’s the second difficulty with wooing these hardcore fans to pledge their allegiance for eight London games a season: they’ve already made up their minds.
The full spectrum of colours that the collective jerseys of the NFL teams represents, that adds such vibrancy to each of the International Series games, demonstrates that most of these fans already have favourites they root for.
A one-off game or two each year has enough of a novelty factor that all the serious fans will cough up the cash for a single ticket. But once that novelty wears off, a dedicated fan base is a must in order to keep filling a stadium the size of Wembley once a fortnight throughout the regular season.
For that the NFL will have to tempt those fans away from their old teams: to hope that they’ll be just fickle enough to jump ship to a different team but not so fickle to discard the sport entirely.
In addition, they’ll be asked to dispense with all the years of history of their old teams — and almost certainly the things that attracted them to the team and the sport in the first place — to cultivate an affection for a blank sheet of paper, to a team without all that historic inertia that separates the identity of the Cowboys from the Bears and the AFC North from the NFC East.
So as long as there is an army of closet NFL fans starved of the real thing, a few days out every year for the big game at Wembley will probably bring them in by the thousand up Wembley Way. But asking them to commit to a completely new NFL franchise with hearts, minds and money? Even that might be one gamble too far for the Commissioner.
Photo courtesy of nfluk.com