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No International NFL Games This Year Could Signify Deeper Problems

13 May, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When the NFL announced its 2020 schedule, it didn’t include any of the five expected international games (four in England and one in Mexico). The NFL has included at least one international game on its schedule since 2006. The league claimed the change was brought about by travel problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That part, of course, is true; travel, particularly to international destinations, is more difficult than it was, and the NFL needs to bring a large crew and plenty of equipment, further complicating the equation. And realistically, some headway has been made; in 2018, an NFL-only venue was announced as being in construction on the grounds of the new soccer stadium for Tottenham Hotspur.

As SDM writer Michael Popke noted in 2016, the NFL obviously relishes the concept of taking its shield around the globe. In fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was talk of having an actual team based in London by 2022. However, there are plenty of reasons to warn against the concept of a team with a base other than the continental U.S.

After all, the last time American football tested the international waters, it didn’t end well. The World League of American Football was formed by the NFL in 1989. It played under that name (with breaks when it did not run in 1993 and 1994) until 1998 when it was rebranded as the NFL Europe League or NFL Europe, a name that lasted until 2006.

In 2007, the league officially changed its name to NFL Europa. Unfortunately, 2007 also turned out to be the last year for the league. According to the Washington Post, Commissioner Roger Goodell closed the league, stating that it was time to develop a new international strategy, and that folding NFL Europa was the "best business decision." (The league reportedly was losing about $30 million a season at the time, so he was right on that point).

While there is no doubt the NFL’s international games over the past few years have been successful, the prospect of establishing a full-time team in England seems dubious, even without the problems caused by COVID-19.

An article in Wired explained in great length some of the challenges facing the NFL’s so-called “quest for world domination.” Among the problems, noted Matt Bowers, a professor of sports management at the University of Texas at Austin, said one of the greatest challenges was establishing a level playing field. “Arguably, one of the reasons driving the NFL’s success here at home has been the competitive parity of the league,” says Bowers. “I think you can make an argument that playing in London, or even just traveling to and from London, presents a real competitive disadvantage to the teams that are doing it.”

In other words, a once-a-season game is doable, but establishing teams in other countries that would necessitate regular travelling for games back and forth across the Atlantic (and across the country, for those in the Midwest and West) would be grueling. Among the objections raised:

Time Change: From the East Coast to England, the time change is significant (five hours) but moving westward in the U.S., teams are dealing with up to an eight-hour difference, on top of a long flight. “When you have elite players who have strict nutritional needs and a team of people monitoring their sleep, food intake, and exercise, and then you throw in these travel and jet lag issues, I wonder how the NFL Players Association would react to that,” noted Bowers.

Other opponents cite a second significant time-related problem; in order for the game to kick off at a good time in the U.K., U.S. viewers had to tune in starting at 9:30 a.m. (EST).

While it’s easy to say that many other athletes in professional sports suffer from jetlag because of international travel (professional tennis and Formula One are two examples), it’s a different scenario. All those athletes are on the same tours so everyone is moving at the same time and can be seen as being equally disadvantaged. If one team’s home advantage is that significant, it can be seen as an undue hardship for other teams.

The Financial Realities of an International Team: It’s unlikely that a team based in England would be a desirable landing place for American athletes. Wired notes, “How many players (or teams) would realistically want to move to London, where the cost of living (as well as the tax rate) is pretty much guaranteed to be significantly higher? Would a big-name free agent ever agree to go there without the London team doubling the next best offer?”

Adding Teams: The Wired article also noted, “If you want to truly expand the league and create new teams, you’d have to fully commit to adding at least four more to keep league equilibrium. After 32, 36 is the next number that can be divided into six divisions of six teams each.”

Establishing a new team is a tremendous effort and an enormous investment. Adding four teams, therefore, is highly unlikely. Moving an existing NFL team away from its city is a possibility but choosing the team to move is a decision fraught with problems.

There Really Isn’t a Football Culture Abroad: In the U.K., football means soccer. Rugby is popular too. But American football simply doesn’t enjoy a high profile in the international culture; children don’t play it in schoolyards or aspire to play it in college. Friday night lights aren’t a thing in England (or many other places outside of the U.S. and Canada). It’s not likely that the presence of one pro football team would generate sufficient interest to change any of that. (And the attention being paid to the dangers of concussions is enough to have parents to shooing their children into other sports).

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Because more fans around the world can partake of each other’s sports today, thanks to smartphones, live streams and social media, than they ever could back in the days of NFL Europa, more international fans are aware of the concept of American football, and are able to follow it more easily than ever.

The NFL’s games have been well-received in London (and in Mexico) where they are a novelty and a welcome diversion. The proponents of the International Series say they would like the league to continue its expansion efforts to “see if the greatest athletes from across the world would consider playing [the United States’] most popular sport.” Additionally, they note, the words, "World Champion," inscribed on the Super Bowl ring might actually be true.

In other football news, last week was a particularly bad one for would-be competitors of the NFL. According to Pro Football Talk, the XFL is seeking a buyer. The article notes, “The XFL technically is in bankruptcy, but Vince McMahon is still hoping to break the bank, sort of, by selling the resurrected-but-on-life-support football league.” (Side note: Ouch).

One person not to ask to buy the league is Pacific Pro Football League CEO Don Yee. As of last week, Yee had abandoned plans for Pac Pro, a four-team, single-entity league for college-age players that was to launch this summer. The league website is no longer working, and many league staff have left the Los Angeles area where they were working. Instead, Yee says he is working on a new concept in football, set to launch “starting in 2021.”

As the sports blog, The Ringer, noted, “They’re running out of space in the Graveyard of Failed Football Leagues. There are already tombstones for the World Football League, the United States Football League, the original XFL, the United Football League, the Fall Experimental Football League, the Continental Football League, the All-American Football League, the Stars Football League, the Alliance of American Football, and the Arena Football League and a bevy of other arena football leagues.”

Oh, and the gluttons for punishment diehards in charge of the defunct Major League Football announced in October that they had purchased virtually all the gear owned by AAF and were planning a July 2020 launch with six teams. However, in light of the ongoing pandemic, that seems unlikely.

In other words, that big football graveyard is likely to get three new tenants: the second coming of the XFL, Pac Pro and MLF.

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