View from the Street: Bend it like Odell - NFL to touch down in London?


View from the Street: Bend it like Odell - NFL to touch down in London?

‘The Home of Football’ has long been associated with the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, a place where Dalglish, Best and Messi - greats of the beautiful game - have all strutted their stuff over the years. But could we soon see Messrs Brady, Rodgers and Newton plying a rather different trade under the famous arch? 

If these last three names mean nothing to you, you aren’t alone. Despite the NFL being the richest league in the world, with revenues at an eye-watering $14 billion a year, the popularity of American football has so far failed to extend beyond North America, save for the universal appeal of the game’s showpiece event - the Super Bowl.

It is this desire to export the game across the globe that is top of the agenda for those in charge of the sport, with an overseas franchise established by 2023 the ultimate objective. London is the prime target and the city has been a testing bed for the last decade, hosting at least one regular season game a year since 2007.

With a strong balance sheet, in spite of London games continually returning a loss, you may ask why the NFL continues to flutter its eyes across the Atlantic.

The first theory is that their home market has peaked, a trend that does not marry well with the NFL’s aim to boost annual revenues to $25bn by 2027. A poll in the States in January showed that the number of people following the NFL closely and those who wanted their children to take up the game were both in decline.

However, football is still America’s dominant game by some distance. More than 100 million people tuned into Superbowl LII in February, eclipsing baseball’s equivalent stellar event, the World Series, which attracted 19 million viewers.

Enjoying a healthy but decreasing domestic market, the NFL has identified the UK’s capital as the first stop in its world tour. As well as winning the time-zone lottery, meaning games can also be watched at a sociable time in Asia, the city is recognised as having all the ingredients to deliver the passionate fanbase, the lucrative sponsorship opportunities and the world-class stadia needed to produce a winning team, on and off the field.

League bosses have every reason to be optimistic that any investment will return meaningful gains. A 2015 report by Deloitte estimated that a London-based team could generate direct economic impact of £102m a year, as well as a boost on total spending in the wider UK economy to the tune of £96m. Sums like this have made Sadiq Khan and George Osborne loud cheerleaders for a local team.

Indeed, it was Osborne’s London Standard that splashed on the biggest breakthrough for the proposal yesterday when they revealed that billionaire Shahid Khan had lodged a £500m bid to buy Wembley Stadium from the Football Association, in a deal that would eventually rise to close to £1bn.

Having the stadium under foreign ownership for the first time paves the way for a permanent NFL franchise to be housed, most likely the Florida-based Jacksonville Jaguars, whom Khan owns. However, to my mind, the idea that an established NFL team be parachuted in will present more challenges than were a brand-new team to be founded.

First, many prospective fans already have their team. You only have to tune in to a game played at London to see each of the 32 teams in the league represented in the crowd, regardless of the clash on the field. It’s the equivalent of spectators at a Manchester United-Liverpool game sporting the shirts of Everton, Arsenal or Chelsea.

Switching your team is not something that people would do easily. Having lived in the US in the 1990s, I settled on the all-conquering Dallas Cowboys, an easy choice given they had just won their fifth championship. 

Had I known that would be their last success, I might have taken a more strategic decision and backed the blue of the New England Patriots, who have won all five of their titles in the consequent period. However, that’s not a natural instinct for sports fans who are more inclined to endure disappointment than switch allegiances. Therefore, it seems fanciful that a London franchise will be the benefactors of a surge in support purely on the basis of its postcode, particularly so if it’s a current team in the league in the case of the Jaguars.

A more probable route to growth would be to attract new and young fans to the game. A team established in London would be well placed to appeal to the 40,000 kids in the UK who have taken up the game at the last count. Even then, any franchise hoping to return investment will require a mass conversion of the casual Super Bowl viewer into a committed season-ticket holder who wears the latest jersey and drinks out of the official mug.

Another stumbling block is the mere logistics of locating a team on another continent. Teams who play in London at the moment don’t play the following week so they can recover from the travel. Although it has been mooted that overseas teams could play games in blocks, the sheer distance remains a key hurdle that has thwarted plans to export other profitable global sporting brands like the English Premier League.

There also needs to be significant financial incentives to convince US players to relocate half way around the world to a country and pay considerably higher tax for the privilege. This is just not something that the NFL system of salary capping currently accommodates.

So, while the concept seems to be inching closer to the goal line, five years out from the NFL’s target, fundamental questions around how a UK-based franchise would work remain unanswered. As things stand, David, rather than Odell, will remain the most famous Beckham in Britain for some time yet.