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The NFL Should Visit London, But Not Stay

While London enjoys its regular visits by the NFL, the city is not ready for its own franchise.

by Ben Halls
Oct 6 2015, 3:19pm

Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

The rigmarole about London getting its own NFL franchise is pretty well established at this point. American Football gets blue ribbon coverage on Sky Sports, Wembley is almost always sold out whenever the International Series is in town, and even more British players are finding their way into the league. When the NFL holds fan rallies in London on the eve of games, over 40,000 turn up to soak in the atmosphere. The sport is massively popular to play at grassroots level too, with the British American Football Association running multiple leagues and university teams attracting huge numbers.

Even Chancellor George Osborne has thrown his voice behind the cause, meeting with NFL executives and declaring "the real prize, the real touchdown for London, would be to get a team based here."

With the New York Jets brushing aside the struggling Miami Dolphins to mark the start of the 2015 International Series, the question of a franchise coming to London is being asked louder than ever. The stage, it seems, is set, with the only problems to overcome being those of logistics.

Except that putting an NFL team in London, either by moving an existing franchise or founding a new one, is a terrible idea.

By having a London based team, the NFL would be changing the fundamental product which they offer to their UK fans. It would no longer be a showcase of the best battles from the league, exported to England for our pleasure, but instead they'd be asking us to cheer a hometown team to success.

READ MORE: What's it Like Being a British NFL Fan?

The problem with making this switch is that history says whichever franchise turns up in London, whether a new team is founded or an existing one moves, they will be awful. You're then asking British NFL fans to give up their plum deal of watching the competitive showcase games they currently enjoy and getting behind a painful building process. As much as Brits may want a franchise to call their own, the question remains about whether or not we're ready for the harsh realities of one. It's guaranteed the team will underperform to begin with, produce a worse product than the one currently on offer, and it could destroy the progress that the sport has made on these shores.

In the past the NFL has added new teams by forming expansion franchises, and typically these have had a hard time getting going. The youngest expansion team are the Houston Texans, founded to fill the void after the Houston Oilers relocated. They had a few good years when Garry Kubiak, Matt Shaub, and Andre Johnson all hooked up, but their story is a tough one. It took them until their eighth year to have a winning season, and their tenth to make it to the playoffs.

The second-youngest, the Carolina Panthers, took nine years to reach the Super Bowl, where they lost, while the next-newest Jacksonville Jaguars — who are giving up a home game a year to Wembley — beat the odds to reach the Conference Championship in only their second season, but have since crumbled. They have not had a winning season since 2008.

The road from being a fresh franchise to success is not an easy one. Unfortunately, the other option for getting an NFL team to London would be having a franchise move, and that is no smoother.

Photo: PA Images

Usually franchises move for financial reasons; there is more money and a better stadium elsewhere. Sometimes the process is drawn out, such as attempts to bring a football team back to Los Angeles, while sometimes, as with the Baltimore Colts, the team literally sneaks out of town overnight.

When teams move, it's not generally under positive circumstances. Either they've fallen out with their local government, or the fans have fallen out of love with them. This is why you never see successful franchises relocating, at least not until they've had a dramatic fall from their glory days. At the moment, the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, and St Louis Rams are the teams most regularly linked to packing their bags and heading to pastures new. These are all teams who've got serious problems, and should London inherit one of them, we'd get those issues along with the team. It's the price you pay.

Of those teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars are the only serious contenders to move to London. They're owned by Shahid Khan, the same man who owns Fulham FC, and the team are willingly giving up a home game per season over the next four years to play in Wembley. They also sponsor flag-football in the UK, and seem to be doing their best to enamour themselves to a British fan base.

Unfortunately, the team are rotten. Since Khan took over in 2011, they've not won more than five games in a season. Their overall record under his stewardship (at the time of writing) is 15-51, and they aren't showing any signs of improving. Such are the Jaguars' struggles that there was talk of bringing in local college football hero Tim Tebow as quarterback, not so much because he'd improve the team and help them win but because he'd put bums on seats.

If London had a franchise moved in, that's the kind of team they'd inherit: a broken one, with serious issues and the same management who've done nothing to cure the rot that forced it out of its previous market. That would be the kind of team which the NFL would entrust to build on the good work done with the spectacular International Series games.

Right now, British and European NFL fans have got the best deal in the world. For years they've stayed up all night to watch American Football, and now those exact kinds of games are being imported. When you go to Wembley you see a rainbow of jerseys, old and new, from all over the league and not just the colours of the teams on the field.

The crowd are only now getting used to being in the stands and not watching on TV. At the first game, there was awkward silence during the breaks between plays, the crowd not making noise to interrupt the play calling of the 'away' team. There's a bit more noise now, but often only after a stadium full of neutrals have picked their side. It stands in stark contrast to the experience you find in an American stadium; hear-a-pin-drop-quiet while the home offence is on the field, and a cacophony when the away team try their attacks.

The International Series has evolved. It's gone from a once-a-year curiosity to a regular fixture on London's sporting calendar. The fans are getting more knowledgable, enthusiastic, and numerous each year, but that does not mean the fan base is ready for the next step. It's still too soon for London to learn the harshest lesson about the NFL: how tough having a hometown team is, and how long it will take to build them into something to be proud of.

@benhalls

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