When news broke recently that the London football club (that’s soccer to us Yanks) Tottenham Hotspur was thinking of designing its new stadium to be fit for American football (that’s football), several thoughts no doubt ran through the minds of NFL fans. Like, “Does this mean that the NFL will soon become the first trans-Atlantic sports league?” and “Will West Coast fans have to starting setting their alarms for 6:30 a.m. on Sundays?” and “Will Coach Lasso finally have to learn how to say Tottenham Hotspur’s name?”
At first blush, this is just part of the NFL’s relentless march toward world domination, now that it’s officially taken over as America’s number one sport. The league has been playing at least one game a year in London since 2007, drawing decent crowds of enthusiastic if oddly dressed fans. And every time there’s a new development across the pond, there’s renewed talk that an existing franchise could soon relocate to London — say, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who currently decamp to the U.K. for one game a year, and who play in one of the league’s smallest U.S. metro areas.
Which all makes sense — until you stop to think about the particular peculiarities of NFL finances. If you were, say, an NBA team, London would be an alluring market: more than 8 million people, many of them awash in spending money, and tons of opportunities to rake in the dough selling everything from TV rights to souvenir jerseys. The chance to get rich in a big market in basketball is the reason why Steve Ballmer was willing to drop $2 billion on the Los Angeles Clippers last year (that, and because when you’re the ex-CEO of Microsoft, price tags are a mere abstraction).
In the NFL, though, things are different. There are no local cable deals: All TV money flows through the national networks, so market size doesn’t give you much of a financial advantage. (That’s one reason the Green Bay Packers have survived all these years: They get the same yearly Fox checks as everyone else.) And with only eight home games a year, sellouts are common, so you can’t expect to double your ticket sales by moving to a bigger city.
Besides, Tottenham’s new stadium — which under the latest plan would get a nifty roll-out fake-turf field for American football — would be owned by the soccer team, with any NFL franchise being relegated to tenant status. That means no chances for an NFL owner to cash in by selling naming rights, ad space on video boards or personal seat licenses for the mere right to buy tickets, like owners in big U.S. markets are doing to fatten their wallets.
So for any individual NFL team owner, London doesn’t seem that much better than any American market — even Jacksonville.
But for the league as a whole, London can serve a bigger purpose: It can be the new Los Angeles.
Ever since the Rams and Raiders split for St. Louis and Oakland two decades ago, L.A. has been a bizarre anomaly on the NFL landscape, the nation’s second-largest city but without a pro football team to call its own. The reason is part political — L.A. officials have balked at the kind of lavish stadium subsidies that St. Louis and Oakland lured their former teams away with — and partly thanks to those curious NFL finances: It wasn’t worth it for any owner to build an L.A. stadium on his own dime with no local cable riches to be won. And with Angelenos happy enough to watch whatever national games were on TV that week, having a long-term L.A. vacancy was no skin off the NFL’s nose, either.
However, that may soon be changing. Last year, the owners of the San Francisco 49ers discovered that their new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., could pay its own way and then some, thanks to all those seat licenses and ad boards and upscale restaurants to dislodge money from wealthy tech moguls. And now, the owners of no fewer than three teams — the San Diego Chargers, plus the prodigal Raiders and Rams — are talking about trying to replicate the 49ers’ success with a pair of new $1.5-billion-plus stadiums in L.A.
While any moves are still very much a maybe — the L.A. stadium financing plans still have more holes than a retired NFL lineman’s brain — filling the L.A. vacuum with even one team would have huge repercussions for the league as a whole. That’s because during its 20 years in the football wilderness, Los Angeles has served a valuable role as a threat, for other team owners to take out and brandish whenever local legislators got cold feet about opening their checkbooks for new stadiums. In Minnesota, all it took was a one-day visit from commissioner Roger Goodell and some sports columns warning that L.A. was waiting with open arms, and next thing you know, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was walking away with more than $1 billion in cash subsidies and tax breaks, courtesy of the citizens of Minnesota.
Without L.A. in play, NFL team owners would need to find a new bogeyman. Enter London. If the league plays its cards right, it can spend the next two decades dangling London as a threat to silence any U.S. stadium naysayers — while still using the distant promise of a team to plump up British interest in the NFL, in a kind of “watch us and we will come” strategy aimed at the 64 million bereft souls who have never known the joy of buying a $10 foam finger.
This might seem needlessly cruel to British fans who’d be getting their hopes up, or to fans in U.S. cities who would start clamoring to reenact the Boston Tea Party at the prospect of losing a team to another continent. (No taxation without the shotgun formation!)
To the NFL, however, it’s not rapacious greed, it’s just good solid business strategy. Though these days, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.