While the tradition of playing regular season games at Wembley has only existed since 2007, preseason games had been played around the world from 1986 until 1997. The NFL dubbed it the American Bowl, with teams traveling to locations such as Ireland, Japan, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom to flaunt their preseason skills. The popularity of the NFL in Europe grew drastically in the 80’s and early 90’s thanks to these games, but soon tapered off once the custom ended.
In recent years, coverage of the NFL has increased on British television, mainly fueled by Sky Sports (a group of satellite TV channels focused on sports) running at least 6 games a week during the regular season and showing highlights from the NFL Network and ESPN. As the market of fans expanded, the NFL introduced the International Series at Wembley Stadium. Currently set to play at least one regular season game in London until 2016, the International Series provides fans in England, and any other country that wishes to travel there, the opportunity to see a live and meaningful American Football game.
Since 2007, the home team has varied, with only Tampa Bay hosting more than once. It was announced in August of 2012 that the Jacksonville Jaguars would play one game a year in London, from 2013 to 2016. The Minnesota Vikings will also play one of their home games at Wembley in 2013. Typically, teams that are selected to play in London have experienced difficulty filling their home stadiums each week. This provides the team with the opportunity to reduce the price of season ticket packages, since there is one less game to buy.
While the International Series is great way to promote the NFL in a growing market, talk of more expansion across the pond continues to arise.
Roger Goodell has expressed many times his desire to play a Super Bowl in London, which would effectively move millions of dollars in revenue from a potential host city in America and plant it in England. That’s a good move for the economy, Mr. Goodell (insert sarcasm). Even worse than that, though, is the discussion of a permanent NFL team in London.
Regardless of whether or not London could support a franchise, (L.A. can’t hold onto a team, but yeah, let’s try one in another country 3500 miles away), it’s the travel conditions that raise the biggest concern. Playing in an away stadium is already difficult enough and spending a day traveling is no picnic either. When time zones are added to the equation, it adds a new dimension of adversity.
In the last five seasons, teams in the central and eastern time zones won 44% of their games on the road, while teams in the mountain and pacific time zones averaged to win 37% of their road games. All four time zones won approximately 56.5% of their home games, though. When comparing game start times, west coast teams playing on the east coast at 1:00 pm EST had a combined record of 19-52. The record of east cost teams playing on the west coast at 1:00 pm PST was 32-39. The trend here seems to favor the teams on the east coast, since it’s easier to play later in the day than they’re used to, rather than much earlier.
What would this mean for a London team?
For starters, they would have to fly anywhere from 7 to 11 hours 8 weeks of the season. Even though they would be going in the positive direction based on the stats above, an 11 hour flight is exhausting and it’s incredibly difficult for a body to adjust to such a huge time difference. Teams traveling to London would have to deal with the long flight and time zone adjustment and any west coast teams having to play in London would be at a severe disadvantage. Unless they fly out the Monday before, which the 49ers did last year, their internal body clocks will be a mess. The game would still start at what would be 1:00 pm EST, so the circumstances of west to east travel are the same as playing in Baltimore, but the 11 hour time difference will add to the burden of being the away team from the west. And even if they did get to London 6 days ahead of time, they then have the inconvenient task of booking practice facilities for the week and paying for extra food and hotel nights.
While a franchise in London would expand the NFL brand even further, producing more revenue for the league, it doesn’t make geographical sense to put a team in England. A few international games a year is fine, as long as it doesn’t take away home games from teams in supportive markets (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England, Dallas).
If an international team is what the commissioner seeks, go to Canada. It seems to work out just fine for the Blue Jays.