Coronavirus pandemic shows why the NFL shouldn't move a team abroad

Dan Wetzel

Understandably, the NFL last week officially canceled all of its international contests for the 2020 season. Instead, all five games are scheduled to be played as home regular-season games. Staging them in the United States is going to be challenge enough as long as the coronavirus is a significant part of life.

“After considerable analysis, we believe the decision to play all our games domestically this season is the right one for our players, our clubs, and all our fans in the U.S., Mexico and UK,” NFL executive vice president Christopher Halpin said in a statement last week.

There is no denying that. Solving the logistical challenges of five games on foreign soil — four in London, one in Mexico City — is hard enough when there isn’t a global pandemic going on. And that’s one more reason why the NFL is best served continuing to stage a small number of regular-season games around the globe (when it’s safe) rather than commit to a franchise in London.

London's Wembley Stadium has hosted a plethora of NFL games over the past several years. There will not be any international NFL games in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

If something unexpected happens — health, safety, economic, etc. — it’s easy to just cancel the games and reschedule them in the States. It’s a whole other deal if the NFL was trying to figure out how to make a London franchise work right now.

The International Series began in earnest in 2007, when the New York Giants played the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium. The game was as much a curiosity as anything else. There were enough expats in the United Kingdom to sell the place out, but for locals, this was an introduction to a strange sport. 

That was OK. It was what the NFL wanted. Give them football and maybe they get hooked like Americans long ago were. With the domestic market all but maxed out, Europe looked like a grand experiment. 

And so they’ve played at least one game a year in London, all while slowly increasing the number of contests to test the depth and strength of the market. There were two games in 2012-13 and three from 2014-16 and in 2018. In both 2017 and 2019, there were four. 

Additionally, there has been a game in Mexico City in 2016, 2017 and 2019 (the 2018 game was moved to the U.S. due to poor field conditions).

As the London crowds went from almost exclusively Americans living abroad to an increasing number of Brits who had become NFL fans in general, the speculation has been on putting a team permanently in London. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who play one game there annually, are the prime relocators.

That possibility was bolstered with the opening of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London. While its main tenant is in the English Premier League, it is the first stadium outside of North America to be designed and constructed with the NFL in mind (big locker rooms, for instance).

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was designed with an NFL configuration in mind, as the league planned to stage more international games or potentially move a franchise to London. (John Walton/PA Wire)

It was one more hurdle cleared. 

There is no need to act on it, though. 

In the best of times, having a franchise in Europe brings all sorts of uncertainties. Travel issues, player visas, the challenge of working out free agents each week, the willingness of free agents to live abroad, etc.

And when getting everything ready for a long-scheduled regular-season game is a task, what happens in the playoffs, when a home-field site can be determined on six days notice? 

Yes, London is a big, rich, cosmopolitan city with a population the size of Los Angeles. There is money to be made there. But holding four games a year, with no strings attached, has worked out pretty well. 

While the NFL should be chasing and opening new markets and new money, the International Series already does plenty of that. And the league’s ability to expand the number of games (five, six, eight?) elsewhere allows games in Mexico, or even perhaps Germany or Brazil, or wherever else it feels it can create a foothold. 

And then if unforeseen problems arise, it isn’t stuck.

With the United States border with Canada currently sealed, Major League Baseball’s plan to return calls for the Toronto Blue Jays to play games at their spring training facility in Florida. The NBA and NHL are also scrambling to figure out how to make this work.

And that’s just dealing with Canada.

This time it was a pandemic, but it could be anything — political unrest, economic uncertainty, an Icelandic volcano stopping travel. 

All the NFL had to do was flip a figurative switch and give itself more home games domestically. Otherwise, it's dealing with a multi-continental headache. 

It’s an unexpected reminder from the coronavirus.

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