For reasons perhaps known only to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the people at Yahoo who were “adventurous” enough to stream a live game from London earlier this season, the powers that be are hell bent on bringing America’s Game and America’s Teams to London and beyond. Few players seem keen on the idea, with future Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Smith summing it up rather nicely: “If that happens, it’s a clear vision that they don’t really care about the players’ safety,” Smith told ESPN. “They care about their pockets. And I think that is messed up.”
Despite a rather tragic effort between the Bills and Jags earlier this season — best know for being streamed live by Yahoo — the NFL is determined to force pro football into the psyche of European fans, starting in London. The league announced an aggressive schedule for a trio of U.K.-based games in 2016, which will feature the Jags and Colts, the Rams versus an NFC East team (to be named later), and the Bengals versus the Redskins. The league also said that the game will move beyond Wembley Stadium, with the Rams game being played in London’s Twickenham Stadium.
Since this international nonsense started in 2007, the media has focused on many of the reasons why the fit between pro football and Europe is at best an uneasy pairing — lack of familiarity with the game, time zone differences, and excessive wear and tear on the players. On top of those issues is the $25 billion broadcast contract between the networks and the NFL.
Not known for being visionaries, TV executives are having issues airing games at times when a fraction of the U.S. can view them live — while telling advertisers that games in Europe will bring stellar ratings. Beyond the oft-discussed and obvious drawbacks, there are some other sticking points that must be resolved before the NFL’s “conquer the world” strategy has any chance of succeeding.
Ever wonder why players cringe when they are traded from teams in the U.S. to counterparts in Canada? It involves taxes. The issue of American players having to pay Canadian tax for the portion of games they play north of the border made the headlines in 2012 when the Marlins and Blue Jays were involved in a major swap. A piece in Forbes stated that the five players traded from the Marlins would be hit with a collective $2 million tax bill for playing in Ontario.
The same principle goes for NFL players punting and passing in London. As explained in a piece on Accountingweb, the 49ers, who played the Jags in the U.K. in 2013, were hit especially hard given California’s state income tax coupled with the 45% tax rate in the U.K. Ever wonder why Mick Jagger tried to become a British expat? Yep, taxes.
Take your average NHL team, such as the Philadelphia Flyers. Their current roster is a veritable bazaar of nations with players from France, Canada, the U.S., the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, and Russia. Pro hockey, Major League Baseball, and the NBA — to a growing degree — are international sports because their players are international. As such, these sports have built large, loyal followings around the world with the NHL playing games overseas since 1938.
In the past decade, NHL teams have played exhibition games in many countries, such as Latvia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic — countries that have many stars who play pro hockey in North America. While there are currently more European players than the average fan might expect (18), a small handful register on the fan recognition scale. The best known expats (no, they are not former New England players) include Graham Gano from Scotland (kicker, Panthers); Sebastian Janikowski from Poland (kicker, Raiders); Jack Crawford from England (DE, Cowboys); and Sebastian Vollmer from Germany (OT, Patriots). Not a Jaromir Jagr, Tim Duncan, or Yadier Molina in the bunch.
So which comes first in the chicken-and-egg process: Playing games overseas or cultivating local youth who are interested in a foreign sport? A recent report shows that interest in professional football is rising in the U.K., China, and Russia, but it’s difficult to gauge how long it will take for curiosity to turn into actual participation. The rise in concussions in the NFL doesn’t help with youth football abroad.
3. The legacy of NFL Europe
The best thing that can be said about the disaster that was NFL Europe is that it launched the careers of Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme as well as some memorable logos, such as those from the Rhein Fire and Hamburg Sea Devils. In 1998, the mish-mash that comprised the World League of American Football morphed into NFL Europe, which lasted until 2007 when NFL Commissioner Goodell pulled the plug when he reported the league was losing $30 million a season.
You could argue that with the spread of the Internet and social media, foreign interest in U.S. sports is higher than it was eight years ago. Those in favor of overseas expansion can point to the sellout crowds in the U.S. each summer when the best European football (we call it soccer) teams play “friendlies” in the U.S. Why can’t the inverse of such expansion hold true?
Unlike U.S. football abroad, soccer has taken firm hold as an amateur and collegiate sport in the U.S., which boasts a professional league (MLS) and American-born players such as Tim Howard (Everton) and Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) playing at high levels in Europe. And then there’s the issue of timing; there are some magnificent stadiums throughout Europe such as Mestalla Stadium in Valencia and Allianz Arena in Munich. By and large, these facilities are generally booked with soccer matches during the NFL season.
This all leads to the concept of organic versus forced growth. Cultivating a new sport in a new region takes time and doesn’t reach the mainstream until there is a lot of active participation. Someday, fans might root for the Munich Marauders as they play the Dallas Cowboys with a starting quarterback from Warsaw under center. But that someday is a long way off.