NFL's global plan: play everywhere, stay nowhere

Dan Wetzel

The NFL will stage a 2018 regular-season game in China with the Los Angeles Rams serving as the "home" team, according to the Los Angeles Times.

No opponent has yet been named. No location either, although it'll be a surprise if it's anywhere other than 91,000-seat Beijing National Stadium, the centerpiece of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The NFL likes to do things big.

Commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn't confirm specifics on Wednesday, saying only that the league is "interested" in going to China and a number of teams have said they want to participate.

"The size and influence of China in the global marketplace can't be ignored," Goodell said wistfully.

The NFL has been staging games in London since 2007. (AFP)
The NFL has been staging games in London since 2007. (AFP)

This would be bold, daring and logistically challenging in myriad ways. It's fraught with failure. It's also the future the NFL is barreling headlong into. In other words, no matter how American the game of football is, get used to it.

It may be fitting that the Rams will be the home team. As temporary residents of the LA Coliseum, they are freed up while their new palatial stadium is being constructed in Inglewood. Their move from St. Louis ended, or at least curbed, one of the NFL's most lucrative bargaining chips, gaining sweetheart concessions from existing cities when their franchise threatened relocation to L.A.

While a second team sharing the stadium with the Rams is still an option, is L.A. really ready for two franchises? As such, the most powerful possible relocation target is London, where the league has set up shop since 2007 via the International Series.

London is no longer a threat any mayor in America should take seriously. That's what China signifies. So too does NFL games being announced in Mexico (2016 featuring the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders) and speculated for Germany (2017).

London getting a full-time franchise is a back-burner item.

The league's goal, as reported by Yahoo Sports Charles Robinson this week from the owners' meetings, is to play games around the globe in an effort to build up interest which can be monetized via international digital media rights. That's a far greater revenue stream than limiting the league to just one non-U.S. franchise.

It's not that London isn't appealing. Its population is nearly nine million, tailing only New York and L.A. There are 40 million more English outside of London and tens of millions more potential fans in Paris, Belgium, Wales and the Netherlands, all just a couple-hour train ride away.

Repeatedly staging games in London has helped produce a dedicated group of football fanatics. Attendance is strong. Television ratings are good. The city has plenty of money, individual and corporate.

It could work.

Except it couldn't, at least not full-time. The logistics are too great, the burden on all teams too much. Travel, both week of the game and week afterward, shipping equipment, dealing with roster turnover and so on would be an immense challenge in the regular season.

It would become untenable once the team eventually made the playoffs. How do you play Sunday in say San Francisco and then London on Saturday with no advanced notice?

The cost benefits aren't there. Goodell might covet getting into such a big market, but the NFL is generally cautious and thorough with these things. It took two decades to go back to Los Angles, after all.

China is where this is headed, not to mention Berlin and Sao Paulo and who knows where else.

Having one franchise play eight games in London each season boxes the league into a corner. So why not expand the International Series to eight games a year, play all over the place, and try to duplicate the success of London?

The league is under contract to stage three to four games a year in London going forward, both in Wembley Stadium and a new facility built by the soccer club TottenhamThe new place will be more football friendly – with NFL-sized locker rooms, etc.

Staging the remaining four to five games around mainland Europe (Berlin, Paris, Madrid), Mexico City, Brazil, China and Japan spreads things out. There could be an annual commitment. It could rotate.

The future is mobile and global, not market-by-market via living room televisions. Last season, broadcast a game from London exclusively over the Internet. The NFL's goal was to test the global market place. Games can now be sent anywhere and everywhere without dealing with local broadcasts rights and getting on the best channels.

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For example, it's questionable that the NFL could ever garner a big enough slice of the Beijing market to put a franchise there. It would take decades. And even in Beijing, a wealth center by Chinese standards, the median annual income is less than $12,000 U.S., according to a 2015 report by Beijing Today.

By making a big push there, though, could the NFL get just one-tenth of 1 percent of China's 1.4 billion people to become fans enough to watch at least some games? That would represent a spectacular success, adding 1.4 million viewers, a media market larger than Jacksonville, Buffalo, New Orleans, Charlotte, Indianapolis or Nashville.

"We have fans and potential fans there," Goodell said.

There's just too much potential money to not give this a try and too much to put all the league's international eggs in London's basket.

The plan could be fairly simple. With eight games a year, each team plays out of country every other year and loses one home game every four.

Some trips are more stressful on teams than others. It takes about six and a half hours to fly from the Northeast to London. It's about 14 to Beijing. Working that around byes, or even opening a season in Asia, might be an option. Clearly the NFL is willing to try.

Jacksonville, for one, is eager to play internationally every year, with an agreement to stage a game in London each year through 2020 (with a team option that could extend to 2025). The Rams will play in London each of the next two seasons, then reportedly go to China.

Some franchises may want to follow that lead and be more active with this. Others may prefer the opposite. Goodell said more franchises are interested in China "than we can handle and that's a good thing."

As such, the International Series will be more than the London Series. It's been a success thus far, not in paving the way for a franchise in England as initially suspected, but in showing that sustained efforts can create interest abroad.

As technology has changed viewing possibilities, the league is shifting with it. There are bigger and bigger markets to chase.

So China, like it or not, is coming. And it isn't going way.

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