The NFL has reached a ten-year deal with the Tottenham Hotspur, F.C., a soccer team based in the northern part of London, to use their stadium for a minimum of two games per season. "Spurs" will be opening a new stadium in 2018 with a capacity of 61,000.
This deal presumably will not affect the NFL's deal with historic Wembley Stadium, where the league has hosted games since 2007. There are three games slated for the 2015 season at Wembley, featuring all three of the Patriots divisional rivals. The NFL and Wembley both made a point of stating the relationship with Spurs is "not exclusive." Jacksonville has a deal to host one "home" game per season at Wembley until 2016.
Presuming that Wembley will continue to host three games per season, and that Spurs will have their minimum of two games, London will play host to five games per season, starting in 2018. While the two separate stadiums will prevent a team from being fully located in London, the NFL is clearly trying to expand their International Series to eight games to see if London can sustain a full season's worth of interest in games.
According to NFL data, roughly just 3% of attendees are from the United States. The remainder are predominantly located in the United Kingdom, or London itself.
While a team in London likely won't happen until 2028 at the earliest- when the contract with Spurs ends- don't be surprised if there are eight games played in London by the early 2020s. It seems more a matter of when a London team will exist, as opposed to if.
This begs the questions: 1) Should a current team relocate?; 2) Should a new team be created, to bring the league to 33 franchises?; 3) Should the London team become a rival to the New England Patriots?
Let's answer each one individually.
Should a current team relocate?
The NFL currently has three teams fighting to move to Los Angeles: the Chargers, the Raiders, and the Rams. All three have their own benefits- the Chargers and Raiders have joint stadium planned, while the Rams owner has a large tract of land in Los Angeles.
There's no way three teams will move to L.A., while Patriots owner Robert Kraft seems to think that the joint plan from the Chargers and Raiders makes the most sense. It would keep teams in the same state and it would split the costs of the new stadium between two teams. Kraft also believes the NFL owes it to St. Louis to keep a team in their market.
At this current point, it's hard to project any of the L.A. hopefuls as a London team. Perhaps St. Louis would be viable in another decade, or maybe the Jaguars could expand their London series. But the league likes the St. Louis market, and Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is aggressively trying to develop downtown Jacksonville.
The Titans are likely to be sold soon after their owner passed away, and their contract with the newly-renamed Nissan Field expires in 2028, coincidentally the same time the NFL's new contract with Spurs expires. However, they've technically sold out every game at their current location, and they're far from the smallest market in the NFL.
It seems very unlikely that the NFL will move an existing team to London.
Should the league create a new franchise?
Absolutely. The league can and should grow their footprint and they should do it in the non-cannibalistic way of natural expansion. However, the league probably shouldn't stop at London.
According to fairly simple, and by no means exhaustive, research from 538's Nate Silver, once the league addresses their Los Angeles issue, the next two largest football fan bases without a team are Mexico City and Toronto, with Las Vegas a considerable third place.
London is still an untapped market with regards to local interest in the sport, so they're a lucrative option.
The Bills fiddled around with interest in Toronto, but Silver notes there are actually more Cowboys fans than Bills fans in Toronto, so there is clear room for expansion. However, the Canadian Football League is the second most popular in Canada, behind only the National Hockey League, so while there is an interest in football, it might be an uphill battle for the NFL.
Instead, the NFL should turn its focus to Mexico City. The league spent time developing interest in Mexico at the turn of the century with preseason games in five out of six years between 1996 and 2001, culminating in the most attended regular season game in NFL history between the Cardinals and 49ers in 2003. They haven't gone back.
At this year's annual owner's meeting, the NFL determined that they wanted to expand their international footprint with games outside of the United Kingdom, with 2017 as the target season. They also wanted to restart preseason games in Mexico prior to 2017, which implies a potential game in 2016.
There's a lot of work to be done before other franchises are considered, and London is well ahead of other markets. Would the league be willing to field an off-balance 33 team league? If the profits say yes, then absolutely they would. Ideally the league would expand into four new markets to balance the league (Mexico City, Toronto, London, and Las Vegas would make sense), but in the shorter term, the most likely option would be for the league to create an expansion team in London by 2030.
Should the Patriots become their rival?
It's a 6 hour and 20 minute flight to London from Boston. It's a 6 hour flight to Seattle. It's a 6 hour flight to San Diego. It's a 6 hour and 10 minute flight to Los Angeles. The league can continue to implement its "bye week post-London" scheduling.
Staging a New England-London rivalry is the most no-brainer, easiest marketing pitch in world history. New England. Versus. London. It writes itself.
If the Chargers and Raiders move to Los Angeles together, the league will have to realign since teams that share a stadium aren't allowed to be in the same conference. If that's the case, the league should take the opportunity to change the divisions from their completely-out-of-whack distinctions.
Here's a realignment that holds the AFL/NFL pre-merger respects for the Raiders/Chiefs/et al. and also keeps sacred the old rivalries.
|AFC East||Buffalo||London||New England||N.Y. Jets|
|AFC South||Jacksonville||Miami||New Orleans||Tampa Bay|
|AFC West||Denver||Houston||Kansas City||L.A. Raiders|
|NFC East||Dallas||N.Y. Giants||Philadelphia||Washington|
|NFC North||Chicago||Detroit||Green Bay||Minnesota|
|NFC South||Atlanta||Carolina||St. Louis||Tennessee|
|NFC West||Arizona||L.A. Chargers||San Francisco||Seattle|
This balanced realignment changes how the Southern divisions (the weakest in the league) are distanced. The Colts move to the AFC North, where they should've been, while the Titans move to the NFC South, and the Texans move to the AFC West.
The Dolphins move to the South to make room for London, to create Florida rivalries in a state that needs a reason to be more popular than their college teams. The Chargers and Raiders have to split up to separate conferences per the NFL Constitution, and the ghost of Al Davis gets the nod to stay in the AFC.
The NFC East and North remain unchanged, as does the AFC North (apart from the addition of the Colts).
The scheduling algorithm will have to change to account for the 33 teams, but that's nothing new; the calculus was more unique prior to the Texans joining the league.
The Patriots are an internationally recognized brand and I think Robert Kraft would be thrilled to play a part in the expansion in Europe as an easily marketable foe. If the London franchise is viewed as inevitable, adding them to the AFC East makes more sense than adding them anywhere else (although the "American" Football Conference might be called to question).
Wherever the league goes in the United Kingdom, or in Mexico, or in Canada, will be interesting to watch. This is a crucial frontier for the NFL.