By all accounts, the NFL International Series has been a success in London. You can criticize Roger Goodell on numerous things, but one thing that is undeniable is the growth of the league under his reign, and the International Series has played a big part in that.
By Collin Giuliani – Lead NFL Writer – @CollinGiuliani
Every game in London has been a success, and all but one (2011, when tickets didn’t go on sale until less than three months prior to the game because of the lockout) have sold out Wembley Stadium. Now, the league is playing three games a year in London; the Jaguars will play their third of four London games this year due to the positive impact that playing these games has had on the team. It’s looking more probable than not that we will be seeing full-time football in London in the next 15 years.
That’s only the first step, though. As with all great businesses, the next question becomes: Where to next? As sung in “Sweet Child O’Mine,” the question becomes this- where do we go now? London is the launching pad to the league expanding internationally and gaining a foothold on other territories; after London becomes successful, there’s no way that the league is stopping there. Whether it means an expansion somewhere else in Europe, somewhere in Brazil or somewhere in Asia, such as Japan, nobody knows. Nobody knows for sure what the league is going to do next, as Goodell has never confirmed anything beyond London.
We might have an idea, though, of where the next expansion might go. It’s looking more and more likely that Mexico is the next target. It makes sense when you think about it – Mexico City has a population of over 8.85 million (which is larger than the population of every other market in the NFL), it’s in the time zone of the continental United States (a flight from Mexico City to Phoenix is less than 90 minutes), and there is interest in football there. In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals played the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City in a regular season game, and Estadio Azteca drew 103,467 fans; this was an NFL record at the time until the game between the Cowboys and the Giants to open up Cowboys Stadium broke it.
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Is going to Mexico City going to mean a huge step for the league? Not compared to what London means. If the NFL can successfully go into London, then they just expanded their footprint across all of Europe; they become the first North American league to expand overseas, and every future logistical hole will seem small compared to when the league placed that team in London. Placing a team in Mexico City is a smart idea, but it’s not going to change the face of the league, if that makes sense, because people there know and love the game of American football; maybe it opens the doors for expanding into other cities in Mexico (such as Guadalajara), but the odds that it opens the doors for expanding into other Central American cities is slim to none. Still, it would be a very good place to have an NFL franchise, due to its population, its proximity to the United States and the interest that has already been shown thus far.
That being said, the league’s not going to just randomly throw a team in Mexico City right now and hope for the best. As mentioned in that earlier report, the plan (though the NFL debunked this plan as “premature”) was to play five regular season games over the course of five years in Mexico City, beginning in 2017. The problem becomes this – who wants to play in Mexico City? Owners already hate playing games in London and giving up one of their eight regular season home games to go overseas; the only owner in the NFL that willingly plays in London is Shad Khan, and that’s because playing the London game gives the Jaguars much needed revenue that they cannot otherwise get while playing in one of the league’s smallest markets (it also helps that Khan owns soccer team Fulham FC, who currently sit in the English Championship).
You’re probably not having a team in London by this point; the NFL International Series will still be going on, and it will be going on not just at Wembley Stadium, but at the new White Hart Lane (Wembley Stadium has an event limit per calendar year that the new White Hart Lane will not); instead of three games a year in London, it could very well be 4-5 games by this point across two different stadiums. Add one game in Mexico City, and that’s six home games that owners will have to give up. That’s roughly 25% of the league’s owners who will have to give up a home game to go internationally, and most of them will do it against their will. When you consider the fact that you’re not taking a home game away from a team that constantly sells out, such as Green Bay (the Packers will likely never play a home game away from Lambeau Field because of the fact that their season ticket holders already don’t get a full package due to the Green and Gold Packages for season ticket holders from when they played games in Milwaukee), Chicago and New England and you narrow that down from there, the rest of the league won’t be happy about this.
How can the NFL expand into Mexico without upsetting this? It all comes down to Los Angeles. Whoever moves to Los Angeles could play an important role in the NFL’s expansion to Mexico.
Nobody knows who’s moving to Los Angeles; it’s between the Chargers, Raiders and the Rams, and the odds are at least one of those teams will be in Los Angeles by 2016. The solution is simple – whoever moves to Los Angeles acts as the home team in the Mexico game. Much like the Jaguars are London’s “de facto” team, the Los Angeles team would be Mexico City’s team until they show that they could support a team of their own. If two teams move to Los Angeles, then they could alternate every year; if the series expands to two games per year, then both teams could play in Mexico City once per year.
Why does this make sense? Aside from geographical proximity (it’s less than a four-hour flight; for comparison, the flight time between Jacksonville and London is just under 11 hours), the attendance for the Los Angeles team will still be higher with seven games than it would be in their original market with eight. Let’s say the proposed capacity of the new Los Angeles Stadium is 72,000 (roughly). For the first few years, let’s assume a sellout in every game and that the new Los Angeles team will get 72,000 fans per game. Over seven games, that’s 504,000 total fans; tickets are likely to be more expensive than they currently are in Oakland or St. Louis due to the concept of supply and demand. In Oakland, the eight-game total was 459,533 fans; in St. Louis, the eight-game total was 456,146 fans. More fans would still show up for Los Angeles in seven games than they would in the original markets in eight games. Attendance wise, this doesn’t hold true for San Diego, but revenue wise, the Los Angeles Chargers would thrive more than the San Diego Chargers when ticket prices are factored in. In other words, can you complain about losing money/fans if you never had that money to begin with?
It also makes sense considering the fact that with a new stadium in Los Angeles, the NFL has the greatest bargaining chip- the Super Bowl. Make the promise that playing a game in Mexico City will ensure that Los Angeles has a Super Bowl twice in the five-year period that the contract is in play. Promises like this are not unheard of; Super Bowl XLIX was awarded to Kansas City on the promise that a retractable roof would be built, but once this couldn’t be done, the offer was rescinded. Even though the revenue from an eighth Raiders, Chargers or Rams home game is great, the revenue won from two Super Bowls in a five-year period is massive, and eclipses that by a landslide.
What the NFL has going in Mexico right now, even without playing any games, is a start. They get the Sunday Ticket and already have a relatively strong TV deal considering the fact that it is an international country; getting FOX involved more could be another step in the right direction (instead of FOX only showing four Sunday afternoon games throughout the entire season, convincing FOX to show one game per week would do wonders to increase the league’s popularity). If the NFL wanted to, they could go into Mexico without ever having to compete against Liga MX (Liga MX has a game at 1:00 and 6:00 every Sunday; if every Mexico game started at 3:00 or 8:00, then the NFL could have control of the sports television landscape in Mexico at that time), which is an added bonus.
Expansion into Mexico is looking likely to happen, and the way to do it without upsetting the other owners (due to the other owners already being upset with sacrificing home games for London; that number is only going to increase) is to just send the Los Angeles team to Mexico City for a game a year with the promise of two Super Bowls in a five-year stretch. After that test stretch, it should be enough to establish a footing in Mexico City and give the city an expansion team.
The next logical step after London is Mexico City, and that looks to be where the NFL is heading. With some smart business calls like they had in London, it’s doable.