Between the World Cup, the World Baseball Classic, and FIBA, watching some of our favorite sports in foreign venues has become commonplace. But there’s still something exotic about the NFL London Games, or the “NFL International Series”, that sets international football apart. Maybe it’s because, unlike the increasingly international baseball and basketball, football has always been regarded as our special American treasure. Maybe it’s because the promise of a new team threatens to rattle the NFL equilibrium and shake the city of Jacksonville to its core. I think it’s just because we’re dying to hear Ian Darke call a Hail Mary touchdown. In reality, the International Series and plans for a future London team are driven by one thing: money. But while Goodell sits and stares at the projected profits in a puddle of drool, he’s forgetting the effects of expanding the International Series on the fans and the players.
There are obvious issues with the London games as it is, especially the fact that half the teams that play in London are sacrificing crucial home games. However, with the impressive attendance at Wembley Stadium, the current situation is more or less tolerable. This is partially thanks to the desperate Jaguars, who have been more than willing to give up home games for the hope of expanding their market (and potentially scouting out a future home). The league also addresses jet lag and the time zone adjustments by scheduling a bye for each team the week after their London game. Most people will agree that we can live with today’s International Series, despite its imperfections. However, expanding the series is a different story.
Right now, it is difficult to analyze the reception of the International Series in England. With only three games a season, the cause of the exceptional ticket sales is unclear. Are we actually brewing fans across the pond? Or are the games nothing more than an entertaining spectacle? One way in which the NFL plans to address this conundrum is to expand the series. Suggestions for extending the season to give every team a London game are receiving more and more attention. Supposedly, this would eliminate the issue of sacrificing a home game while giving football a more serious international presence. But this would be a horrible mistake. More regular season games will yield more injuries, regardless of byes. All it takes is one play to sideline someone for the season, and extra games provide more opportunities to suffer serious injuries. An extra bye is not going to heal a torn ACL or a broken bone.
The International Series is more than an expansion into international venues. It’s a test-run for a London team. Both the NFL and the British government have expressed their desire for a London team in the near future. This would create many of the same problems as an expanded International Series. The time-zone adjustments would create the need for adding byes and expanding the season, not to mention the greatest home-field advantage in the history of sports. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, there is a very real possibility of losing the Jaguars. That would bring the NFL up to an odd 33 teams, so unless there is a second team added (probably in LA) to reach 34, a transfer is more likely. Shahid Khan, the owner of the lackluster Jags, also owns Fulham F.C. Khan has been the most outspoken owner in favor of the International Series, as the Jags have made a commitment to play a game in London through 2016. The stars are aligning for a Jaguars relocation. Yes, the Jaguars are one of, if not the least successful franchise in the NFL. But the worst tragedy in sports is for a city to lose its team. There are over 800,000 people in the city of Jacksonville who have followed the team for nearly 20 years. People have grown up with this team. Call me sentimental, but you can’t put a price on that. London is obviously a much bigger market. It is a bigger city with a bigger population and a bigger stadium, and that all translates to bigger profits. But in my mind, the cost of a London team is bigger: breaking the hearts of the 800,000 plus in the city of Jacksonville.
Ideally, people from all over the world should get to experience football first-hand every Sunday just like we do. But this is not an ideal world. The International Series as it is now is a significant source of anxiety for coaches around the league. The current series is harmless enough, and I do not oppose it. But I do take issue with the plans to expand the series and create a London team., at least in the NFL. It would be unreasonable and impractical logistically, not to mention the costs on the players and fans. Instead the British government needs to pursue a British or European league, where, with more reasonable commutes, the spread of football can really take wing. Before we start dreaming about the millions of pounds to be made, I urge the proponents of an expanded International Series to keep things in perspective.
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