In the past 14 months, we’ve seen three teams approved to relocate. The moves by the Raiders, Rams, and Chargers show that the NFL is willing to experiment to increase growth and expand the reach of the game. With London playing host to four regular season games in the 2017 season, it begs the question on whether international expansion is the next step. The growing presence and the possibility of a permanent team in England places the NFL in unchartered territory.
London has been hosting NFL regular season games since 2007. The NFL’s focus on expanding in London is a key element in its efforts in continuing to develop an international fan base and increase revenue. Sponsorship deals, licensing agreements, media partnerships and ticket sales all signify England’s increased curiosity in the foreign sport of American football. Despite the NFL’s potential success in London, an international move would involve a multitude of legal and practical barriers that do not exist with domestic relocations.
With the increasing interest, the NFL’s willingness to expand, and the potential obstacles, will the NFL find a permanent home in England?
2017 @NFL London schedule is set:
— NFL Football Ops (@NFLFootballOps) December 16, 2016
Two of the 2017 season games to be played in London will be held at Wembley Stadium. The Jaguars are set to “host” the Ravens on September 24th in Week 3 and the Dolphins will play the Saints a week later on October 1st. The other two games will see the Vikings play against the Browns and then the Cardinals will take on the Rams at Twickenham Stadium, with official dates to be announced.
Since the first game in 2007, the NFL has seen an acceleration in growth and interest in England. The NFL has played 14 games in London and all but one has sold out, with gate revenue in 2015 averaging more than $10 million. The NFL is also projected to reach a record number of TV viewers in England despite the time difference, with ratings up 80% from the 2015 season. The expansion of interest in American football, including its recognition as a sport in the United Kingdom, help to create an environment where the NFL may prosper in its attempt for international expansion.
The Brexit Effect
The vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union potentially removed some barriers if and when the NFL attempts to expand to London. Prior to Brexit, the structure of the NFL may have seen conflict with the EU’s free movement laws. In its formation, the EU enacted a treaty making the free movement of workers a fundamental principle, allowing a citizen of the EU to move freely between EU countries for work without the need for a work permit or permanent residency in that location.
The NFL Draft, restrictions on player movement — such as restricted free agency, and the franchise tag — would have potentially violated the free movement laws. The NFL Draft, in which a player accepts the team or is forced to withdraw and wait another year to be drafted, illustrates a clear lack of freedom of “movement” to choose a team.
The question would have been whether the application of these laws applied to the NFL, due to the presence of EU born players on their roster. However, in a post-Brexit world, the NFL is now in a better bargaining position facing only U.K.’s laws.
A London Home Team
While the choice of the U.K. to leave the EU eliminates some of the NFL’s expansion hurdles into London, differences in the laws between the United States and England create others.
The current NFL London series allows a player with a passport to be granted temporary working visas as a “sporting visitor” for one game events. If a team were to play a full home schedule in London, the NFL would need to secure working visas to play. Current U.K. law also requires an athletic governing body in the U.K. to endorse the players’ applications for these working visas. The NFL has been proactive in this respect by establishing NFL International Limited, a subsidiary of NFL Ventures, Inc., to be recognized as such a governing body.
The NFL may also encounter issues with acquiring working visas for active players that have a criminal conviction. U.K. law states that a conviction that carries a sentence of less than a year would prevent the player from getting a working visa for five years from the end of his sentence. A sentence beyond one year, but less than four years, carries a ban of ten years on approval of a working visa. In the case of a player, coach, or team employee who has received a sentence of more than four years, a working visa could be ultimately refused.
The limitation on working visas puts players with criminal convictions in a predicament when trying to play in London. The players and the NFL’s Players Association, in representing the players’ interests, may find this to be an unfair disadvantage to those not granted visas. The denial of visas could result in an unrestricted free agent being technically restricted by the limitation of their criminal conviction. “Unrestricted” to “restricted” would trigger a rewording of player contracts and an assessment of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. An expansion to London would also arguably create a change in the working conditions of the players, which would further lead to an in-depth conversation on the effect to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
In addition to contractual issues, a permanent team in London would create travel difficulties, which would likely receive pushback from the players and the NFLPA. While the expansion decision is in the hands of the 32 team owners, the NFLPA has authority in bargaining for the leagues players. Geographically, London is far from other member teams in the NFL, resulting in a transatlantic journey that has the ability to affect players’ comfort and compensation.
A permanent team in London poses another issue for the NFL: sports betting in the U.K. is not only legal, but also very popular. The NFL and Roger Goodell have been adamant about their views on how sports betting compromises the game. The approval of the Raider’s move to Las Vegas, the gambling capital, makes their stance on sports betting a little blurry. Goodell has been careful to draw lines between fantasy sports and sports betting, and has taken steps to require Wembley Stadium to shut down their sports betting machines during games. Despite this, the NFL also previously partnered with DraftKings to allow DraftKings to advertise in Wembley Stadium, with the caveat that it must be displayed where viewers from the U.S. wouldn’t see it. The NFL is trying to keep its distance from sports betting, but the firm line is increasingly becoming muddled when the NFL finds an opportunity to increase their fan base.
As Roger Goodell has eluded to, it is a realistic possibility that the NFL’s presence in London has the potential to become more permanent. While it has the ability to be both competitive and advantageous, the league has a set of issues they need to work out before the possibility can become a reality. Taking that into account, with the NFL’s intention to work out the logistics and their eyes set on London as a pivotal step to a global NFL, a team in London may become a reality sooner than we think.