As an Englishman, I've always been envious of how all-encompassing the American sports schedule is. Its scope is such that for an entire year, a sports nut from, let's say, Boston, might never have to come up for air. With the combined efforts of the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox, (s)he can completely submerge from January through December.
This multiplicity of interests has always been the backbone of American fandoms. Theirs is a nation of sporting polyglots, and the rest of the world doesn't speak the languages. But this year-round extravaganza always has struggled to translate internationally, which, as the NFL has found in the past, is a problem when it comes to expansion.
In the United Kingdom, we don't have an equivalent of the 'Big Four', because there's never been much room for anything other than soccer. Yet, unperturbed by this, Wembley Stadium will host three regular season American football games this fall in the seventh edition of the International Series. But before the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders even kick off, it can be guaranteed that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will have already taken the time to make a throwaway comment about the future of the mythical 'London Franchise.' (Assuming he even makes the trip, due to the pressure of what's been called the worst week in NFL history; he's been forced to cancel some events already.)
Past highlights include, but are not limited to 2011's 'maybe': "If we're successful with [the International Series], then maybe a franchise is part of that."; 2012's 'possibility': "I think we are quite a ways from having a franchise there, but I don't rule it out as a possibility down the road if the game continues to grow."; and, finally, 2013's inspiring 'belief': "We don't have a timetable for [a London Franchise], we want to continue building interest, and if it continues to go well we believe a franchise could be here."
Whatever tepid sound-bite comes out of his mouth this year, Goodell already knows that rushing into a London franchise is the wrong move, and perhaps not even the move at all. Because whilst America thrives on the diversity of interest, the U.K, or more specifically, England, doesn't.
The English may be parochial with our soccer clubs, but, in contrast to the U.S., geographical coincidence doesn't lead to sporting investment. It's unlikely that, in the manner of the aforementioned Boston fan, a native Manchester United supporter would share the same passion for Sale Sharks rugby or Lancashire County cricket club as he does for his beloved Red Devils. Dichotomies are reserved for international and individual sports, but even on the global circuit, the Three Lions still rule the jungle of the back pages.
This will never change, because the Premier League demands attention. The entire world looks into our backyards, and the result is a domestic whirlwind of soccer media so powerful that even the unwilling are sucked into its vortex. Soccer is such a behemoth on the sporting landscape that it leaves competitors struggling in its wake, forced to lap water from the puddles formed by its enormous footprints.
Just ask the World League of American Football, the first incarnation of NFL Europe that took form in 1991. The WLAF was an attempt by the league owners to capitalise on the interest generated by the NFL's 1982 début on British television, but it hemorrhaged money and did little to suggest that the experiment was worth anything more than its initial novelty value. London's side, the Monarchs, existed for seven years, and although they championed a brief revolution (winning the inaugural season's title game), the team folded in '98, taking with it football's sole claim to English soil.
How the NFL ever hoped to succeed by crowbarring itself into an already crowded party is unclear. But Goodell seems to understand its failings, because in the second go-round, he's doing the opposite. The NFL has won over a new U.K generation by avoiding a land invasion altogether; instead, it's basing itself in the cloud.
This 'death of distance' has given birth to an empire. The statistic usually banded around is that the eight games held at Wembley since 2007 have averaged 85,000 bodies per contest, but the league's globalization shouldn't be measured in flesh and bone. Unlike those who bore witness to the first attempt, the current generation of fans have the Internet — and with it, 24-hour access to an American football hive-mind.
Through the NFL's own Gamepass packages, U.K fans can watch the 256 regular season games, 10 playoff games, and the Super Bowl, wherever and whenever we want. Not to mention the endless global network of articles, podcasts, videos and blogs, all of which, and much more, can be found through the hyper-connected wormhole of Twitter. The breaking down of global boundaries has even extended to traditional media. More televised football is being shown in 2014 than ever before, including three separate British channels broadcasting NFL content this season. With all of this on offer, who needs a London Monarchs 2.0?
Roger Goodell certainly doesn't. Why would he give himself the headache of implementing a full-time franchise to prove that he's conquered the U.K, when, through the power of the internet, he already has? Besides, fans are already full-up as it is, happily paying their subscriptions to take terabyte after terabyte out of the source itself. There's no incentive in untangling miles of red tape when the existing platforms are enticing enough as is — and due to a couple of stadium sell-outs a year, profitable to boot.
The case studies of the past don't bode well for the future of a London team; the safer option is the one that the commish is taking now. It's enough to just keep the idea alive, because U.K fans have been fattened up enough by the online trough (21 percent of the NFL's social media mentions come internationally), and a permanent team might just take the whole experiment to bursting point. All he has to do is keep selling the dream of long-term stability, and short-term options like the Wembley Series will be enough. Because although popular opinion of the sport is at its lowest ebb right now in in the United States, sadly we're no strangers to the situation over here — and just like most fans, it won't stop us buying the tickets, importing the jerseys and streaming the content.
The NFL will never get enough dedicated ink in the back pages of British newspapers, more slots on its television channels, or the real estate to build a stadium, but the U.K doesn't need any of those things in 2014. With the rise of pick-'n-mix media, there is finally diversity, and new-age fans are able to adjust to the presence of American sports themselves. Free from their domestic chains, most are choosing to push this presence to saturation, which can only be good news for the future of the NFL in the U.K, regardless of whether a franchise ends up here or not.