By J Hutcherson (May 18, 2021) US Soccer Players – Last week, the National Football League continued its run as always newsworthy by announcing the 2021 schedule. It includes two games in London, with the league resuming its International Series. The NY Jets play Atlanta on October 10, with Miami vs Jacksonville the following Sunday. Tottenham’s stadium is hosting both games, built with NFL-style locker rooms and with gridiron football in mind.
The NFL made its commitment to staging games in London clear a few years ago. It’s a priority for the biggest pro sports league in the United States, both by size and appeal. There are 32 teams in the United States and no longer an empty Los Angeles market. Even with London’s multiple soccer teams, the NFL built an opportunity. Since the first game that counted at Wembley in 2007, the league created the expectation for putting on big events. Now, it’s as much about attracting an interested fan base. With a couple of exceptions, they stopped doing the pregame concert in 2017. Like Sunday afternoons in the United States, the focus has turned to football.
What that means in viewership numbers remains an open question. The 1pm and 4pm ET starts back in the US are easy enough for British fans. The primetime slots on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday require more of a commitment, but there’s enough available to grow the NFL in a market with the biggest soccer league in the world.
That’s the thing about setting up shop in Tottenham’s stadium. It shows how invested the league is, making it clear that they want to compete for attention a few times a year. It’s easy enough to point to the commitment level of people who go to see their clubs in person in London. It’s not an easy ticket for the big three in that city. At the same time, The Super League made clear that all of those clubs are interested in more. So is the NFL, becoming a rival even if it’s only for a few matchdays a year.
Every time the NFL plays in London, there’s the discussion of a potential expansion team. As NFL writer Peter King explained in a column about scheduling, the Miami Dolphins weren’t interested in having a week off after playing in London. His assumption is that they realize getting back from London in the early hours of Monday morning will have them home a little earlier than a 4pm West Coast game. Even accounting for the time in the air, it’s not the logistical hurdle it might seem. That’s why so many pundits have made the argument for basing a London team’s training facility on the East Coast and using careful scheduling.
The commitment level that already exists suggests that the NFL would probably like to know what a London team might do in that market. The Premier League should as well, since there are no territorial restrictions like, say, Ligue 1 deciding it also needs a team in London.
Given the current environment after the collapse of The Super League, things may have changed in London. At least the soccer fans are happy to draw a sharp distinction between European pro sports and the North American model. That might not matter should the NFL want to make its relationship with the city as permanent as it gets in a franchise league.
Every time the NFL plays a game there are articles using similar numbers to show the appeal is growing or really isn’t there at all. It’s the question of how much appeal gridiron football has in London and across England. The answer hasn’t been obvious. It’s a “take your pick” of punditry, with enough available to prop up whatever argument you’d like to make.
Making a bigger commitment to England would require knowing that the audience is there, more than just filling stadiums for a limited number of games. That’s too easy to dismiss as special event enthusiasm, lacking the staying power for the entirety of a league schedule. The enthusiasm of an expansion team is certainly real, especially in the NFL. Eventually, the team must be the draw.
There’s no set timeline for the NFL showing real expansion or relocation interest. Right now, it’s the idea that the biggest potential competitor to what the Premier League has in London is a gridiron league from the United States. The NFL operates in contrast to the Premier League by the basics of its business model. It’s that different way of doing things that resonates enough that salary caps and financial restraints are gaining momentum in European soccer.
With that in mind, it’s the NFL and the other North American pro sports as an idea that may be the biggest competitor to European soccer as we know it. That doesn’t mean that a group of European teams would break away, turn themselves into franchises, and let the league take the lead. It’s something decidedly more basic. Cost controls and economies of scale will always resonate with businesses that fundamentally lack that same protection.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson: