Let's start this off with a couple admittances - I am British, I have been to the United States once (to Washington DC, we didn't get near to anything NFL related) and I have been to a grand total of one NFL game in my life. And what a game it was! Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars for the NFL international series, I still have my Jacksonville flag on my wall. But make no mistakes, I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan through and through. The little image of me that comes with this article is me at the game, in my full Steelers apparel (and the game scarf). This was, and still is, a big deal to me. It's a big deal to all the other NFL fans in attendance to all of the NFL international series games. To some of these people, a UK franchise just makes sense.
American football to us (just football to most of you, and for the rest of this article) is a real passion. We stay up until sometimes 4am just to watch this absolutely monumental sport. Football is a real cult sport however. I had to educate everyone I know on it. Most of my family and friends still barely grasp it - most of them still see it as a less dangerous version of rugby.
Weirdly, there is a strange amount of distaste for the sport. Much like the US, the UK has it's traditional sports. The US has football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, while the UK has soccer, rugby and cricket. All are fun sports, but to many Americans cricket is an enigma, and to the British football is a riddle. But, for football at least, that is changing. Here's a video from Podyum that shows this well. It looks at the sport in the UK, in particular the London Blitz and the university team, the Birmingham Lions. It talks about how the sport is growing and the support for the sport in the UK is getting from the US - the Birmingham Lions have a yearly press conference from Pete Carroll.
An issue that affects UK fans massively is its accessibility. When my love for the sport started, I found that the only place I could go to watch was a bar on my university campus - coincidentally, where the Birmingham Lions also liked to go.
I only got this experience because I had close friends who took me along, otherwise I would have been searching for any snippet of the the NFL (and if I was lucky it'd be live or of the Steelers, if I was really lucky, both) online while I was at university, save for coming back home every Sunday. If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a live game, it was often at a bar that would shut at 1am and would not even bother showing Thursday or Monday night football (kickoff being 1am Friday and Tuesday), so you'd miss three games a week. Even then, just because it was on, doesn't mean it was the game you wanted to watch. All this meant was that you got to know other teams too. We all wanted to know more - to the point where two of my friends (a Baltimore Ravens fan and a Philadelphia Eagles fan) and I did a radio show with the university to start people talking. Of course the university put us as the last show on a Tuesday night, so of course no one listened.
My point is, the British that are fans live and breath the NFL.
This doesn't mean that there is absolutely no coverage - especially since the international series the NFL has deployed has become big business. There are Brits playing in the NFL (Jay Ajayi) and we have our own coverage shows (Road to the Superbowl with Osi Umenyiora on the BBC is particularly good). The BBC gets coverage of all the Wembley games live, which is a big deal - imagine, watching live NFL while there was still light outside! It's clear that there is an influence of the NFL here, but is it here to stay?
The NFL international series has raised some debate. Last season, there were three games in the UK - and that number seems to be going up. This season there will be two at Wembley and one at Twickenham. However, from 2018 there will be 2 games at Tottenham Hotspur, plus the contracted 2 games at Wembley. That's half a regular season's home games for a team. On top of that, the international series is expanding past the UK, with a game next season in Mexico between the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. There is also serious talk for games in Germany, China and even Brazil. The Steelers were even in talks with Croke Park in Dublin to play (bearing in mind owner Dan Rooney was ambassador to Ireland, this also seems likely).
Assuming that the four in London stand, and each of the countries mentioned all get one game in the next couple years, that's eight international games - enough for a team's regular season home games. This is not going to go away - all 32 teams voted unanimously in favor of extending the international series through 2025. From this point already, a team outside of the US seems pretty likely.
So, if there is going to be a foreign based team, where? Roger Goodell seems pretty firm that it's going to be the UK. For a start, look at London. Wembley is the second largest stadium in Europe (after Barcelona's Camp Nou). It also has Tottenham Hotspur (who have already dealt with the NFL), and stadiums for premier league soccer clubs - Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, Westham and Crystal Palace. This expansion makes economic sense too, seeing that the NFL is the most profitable sports league in the world, bringing in $11 billion in 2015, where the second, the English Premier League, brought in £2.87 billion. Of course, there is going to be expansion, and London is the clear choice for it.
According to Mark Waller, NFL executive vice president, the UK was 4 million "avid fans", but will need 6 million to sustain a franchise. His projection is that this number will be hit around 2022. That is the first pitfall that the NFL will have to overcome to reach it goal of a London team.
Logistics is an even bigger issue. Visas are a problem. Players will need a UK working visa to play and earn. On top of that, players may well not want to relocate to another country to play - this will surely affect offseason signings. The NFL's answer to this? Increasing the spending cap of the UK team above the rest of the NFL to act as an incentive.
The NFL is adamant that any team that plays in its league must be competitive and must have the possibility of winning the Super Bowl. This distance raises further issues - training camps and away games. How can a UK based team have a training camp where it can analyse unsigned players as far away as the UK? The only possible solution here would be to have facilities in both the US and UK. With away games, players are going to be exhausted to have to travel transatlantic on a regular basis. Dan Marino's solution would be to do away games in series of 3 or 4 games, like baseball or basketball, to minimize the strain of travel. Could this work? Only trying it will tell. The distance could also give a UK based team an advantage too - if the trend continues that a team coming to the UK has a bye week the following that game, then this could cause huge scheduling issues. Further to that, imagine a Pacific coast team having to travel to the UK during the playoffs. This would give the home team a massive advantage.
Finally, something that a UK team could influence is the draft. Over here, we don't have a varsity sports system - its far more amateur. Integrating a UK team in this would see predominately American players play for a UK team. Of course this hasn't stopped UK players before, like Jay Ajayi, or even Moritz Boehringer being drafted from a German team.
This begs the question, which teams would be willing to move over? A team with experience of the market would be ideal. Therefore the two teams I would suggest would be the Jacksonville Jaguars and/or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Jacksonville is the team that has been suggested everywhere - their owner Shahid Khan also owns London soccer club Fulham, and he is based there. Tampa Bay's owners, the Glazer family, also own Manchester United (although some distance by UK standards to London). Both teams are not filling out their stadiums as much as they would like, and so tapping the UK market could be advantageous to them. Another team that has UK experienced staff (special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, captain and MVP of now defunct London Monarchs) and poor market performance is the Buffalo Bills. A similar situation is that of the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers - both have short term leases on their stadiums and weak market performance (although this does seem less likely due to Oakland wanting to move to Los Angeles and San Diego to Las Vegas). Jacksonville and Tampa Bay seem the likely candidates, but who, if anyone, will make the plunge across the pond still remains to be seen.
What does all of this mean for the Steelers? Well not much actually. One thing I can say for sure is that they will not be playing home games outside of Heinz field for the international series being as their contract for the stadium stipulates that they have to play 8 home games there every season. On the other hand, if any of the teams mentioned do make a move, Pittsburgh will have a UK game at least every four years, every three years if it's not Tampa Bay, not counting matchups due to the previous season's positioning. Due to the location, it means that free agent signings may become slightly easier, pointing to the disadvantages already mentioned. I can't see this really affecting the Steelers.
All in all, the NFL in the UK is not going away. What I can say is that the UK has some dedicated fans, and they would love to be able see a game in the UK, regardless of who plays. Will the NFL actually move a team over here? Certainly. Will it be in the next 10 years? Probably. In terms of how successful this move will be, only time will tell.
What the NFL may be overlooking is the allegiance and loyalty UK sports fans have. An Arsenal fan would not be caught dead wearing a Tottenham shirt, and I'm not sure that existing fans of the NFL would give up their allegiance to a team that they've had to work to be a fan of just to be a fan of a new UK team - I know that I will be a Steelers fan regardless of a UK team. This article hasn't even considered the influence of rugby on the NFL, so this barely scratches the surface of the UK's influence on the NFL, let alone the other way around. Despite any of this, one thing is definite - a UK NFL team will make history.