sports gazette

A London NFL Franchise: Is it actually happening?

Published: 1 Apr 2017

With the recent announcement that an NFL franchise will be heading to Las Vegas, and two additional teams set to fill out a state-of-the-art facility in Los Angeles, the question has now become: is London next?

American football, the most popular sport in the United States, is starting to take root in the United Kingdom.

The National Football League is currently undergoing a transition phase which is seeing billion-dollar relocations of franchises to areas which can afford to provide a team with a home.

It happened with the St Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers, both of whom will be moving into Stan Kroenke's state-of-the-art facility in Los Angeles in time for the 2020 season, and even more shockingly, it happened to the Oakland Raiders.

One of the most storied franchises in NFL history, are moving to Las Vegas and it's for one reason, and one reason only; money.

As NFL owners struggle to continue modernising their team's stadium and facilities, it is only an inevitability that more franchise relocations are on the horizon. So where will the next big money move come from? Could it really be London?

Neil Reynolds, a lead presenter of the NFL's coverage on Sky Sports, told the Sports Gazette that he has seen a massive rise in the sport's popularity whilst he's been at the channel.

"Since we have had the international series games here, whether it be people watching on TV, coming out to NFL events, there more people are playing the game, and just across the board, every kind of way, the game has grown.

"Numbers go up all the time, and I think what we have seen is that younger fans are coming into the sport and certainly, I feel that the fans we have in the UK are as knowledgeable as they are in America," he said.

So far, as part of the NFL's international series, London has played host for 17 NFL games, and all but one has sold out.

The NFL is clearly one of the fastest-growing sports in the United Kingdom, but David Tossell, director of public affairs for NFL Europe, believes that a lot more could have been done by the British media to promote the sport.

He said: "If you had said to me in 2006, that by 2016, you will be playing four regular season games a year in London, you will have two shows a week on the BBC, you will have 100-plus live games on Sky, I would have predicted that the levels of coverage that we would have got in traditional media would have been ahead of where they were now."

The powerful support from NFL owners is there, I really think it is going to happen, I think it will happen in the next five years

Yet even with a British media that seems reluctant to commit, it is hard to ignore the passionate section of American football fans in the United Kingdom, and it has shown hints of breaking into the mainstream as well.

Estimates suggest that more than one million people stayed up past midnight to tune into the BBC's coverage of the Super Bowl, and with another four NFL games heading to London next year, it's clear that the NFL is testing the viability of a franchise in the city.

Logistical issues will need to be addressed, but if the NFL wants it to happen, the idea of a London franchise feels like an inevitability.

"I think it will happen. The groundswell and the support for the games is just too big and too strong to ignore. The powerful support from NFL owners is there, I really think it is going to happen, I think it will happen in the next five years," Reynolds said.

However, with the issue of cross-Atlantic travel remaining a persistent obstacle to a potential franchise, players are understandably still sceptical of the move.

Dre Kirkpatrick, a star player for the Cincinnati Bengals, told the Sports Gazette: "I don't know about having a team stationed here, just for the simple fact of the time difference, the travel, guys would be so tired.

"If a team has two or three away games in a row, that team is going to be tired. Then they may have a Thursday night game, I feel like that would be harsh on the body. The thought of it is great though, if they can figure out a way, the thought of it is great."

Yet even as these issues remain, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revealed to Sky Sports, that London could have a team in the very near future.

He said: "I think there is the possibility of an NFL franchise, if we continue the growth that we are on.

"I think we have built a tremendous foundation here, I think we have built a great foundation with our clubs and that's a great thing, because people want to be here, they want to participate in this, they want to bring their teams here, and that's good for the fans, it's good for our clubs, and I think it's promising about the future about whether we can have a franchise here on a full-time basis."

A London NFL franchise has been talked about for years, but now the conversation has shifted; it's not a case of if anymore, but when.

The league's owners want it to happen, and it has even received the support of the British government.

NFL executives believe a London franchise will happen in the next five years, and it's shocking how realistic that feels.

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