Why do I care you ask? Well, imagine being a kid in post-Berlin Wall Germany, trying everything you can to see NFL games via satellite, antenna or the previously existing American Forces Network, which was so hard to watch that at some point, you were comfortable with seeing moving pictures with the usual heavy ’90s-style television flickering. In other words, NFL Football is a longtime passion. So now imagine me, observing the league’s heightened interest in my continent for the last 10 years. Yep, that’s right.
A lot has been written about the NFL’s slow-but-steady, sand-turtle-like crawl into the European market and eventual franchise in London. When arguing reasonableness, the league’s interests (e.g. new business, marketing or logistical challenges) come into play. Analysts ask if the NFL should take the next step.
So allow me, as a fan with European heritage, to offer another view on the expansion dreams of the NFL and to steer it away from modern sports colonization destined for failure.
What I see as a fan
Commissioner Roger Goodell tries to get us into bed without even having bought us dinner yet. The league undoubtedly upped its game in the last several years, hosting multiple regular season games in London while offering a full-fledged American experience – whether you’re at the game or walking right by a Ben Roethlisberger jersey on Regent Street.
The numbers support the NFL’s heightened investment into Europe. 1.3 million people watched the 2013 Super Bowl in Germany alone and the games in London remain sold out year after year. In light of these figures, one can ask if a future marriage between the league’s expansion plans and the fans in Europe seems to be a no-brainer or just a fleeting pop-up store. Because in a sense, the games in London are nothing more than a temporary showroom that, of course, attracts fans from all over Europe.
Even though sample sizes are getting bigger, the NFL nevertheless has no reliable data to predict if a European franchise would work. As the initial step, it should address the following concerns:
What I want as a fan
When it comes to the NFL, I want the same experience as in the U.S. Is that possible if I don’t live in London? It could be. I’ve been rooting for the New York Knicks, the Giants, and Inter Milan for half of my life now. Identification with a London team could thrive under certain conditions with certain incentives.
Let me watch every game from the London team without having to pay for it. Give me a chance to follow the complete season of the team through the NFL GamePass so I get cozy with it… And eventually decide on more trips to good ol’ London.
Could I afford to see every game live? Of course not. The question is whether the league can create a fan-base big enough to compensate for the lack of physical presence at every home game.
What is necessary for us fans
Sports is, and always has been, about culture and authenticity. Soccer has historic roots in nearly every European country. Fans know their players and clubs. Believe it or not, imported hot dogs and NFL stars acting like traveling salesmen are no replacement for authenticity.
Once the NFL decides this colossal step, the London team has to be half-American, half-European and function like a true NFL team with true NFL players. Unlike an outpost, however, it should allow our mentality to be the face of the franchise. I wouldn’t go so far as to name the Wisconsin Cheeseheads as an inspiration but the idea remains the same. The London team has European fans from all countries; therefore, we should be the ones to shape the identity of this franchise.
Experts from the U.S. are all too familiar with soccer’s struggles in finding an American identity. In the end, success hinges on the player material. As of now, there is no international star coming from the U.S. of A. Identification with the sport is lacking. Kids have no role model. It is rather comical to see that both continents in the past failed to export their most successful, homegrown sport. Roots can’t be planted artificially. History has to be made first.
Needless to say, the London team doesn’t have to inherit European-only players. Athletes that do decide to come here, however, would need to completely identify with the franchise and its multinational fan base. In the eve of this year’s games in Britain, players expressed their resistance against the idea of having to play for London, while moving there was another story entirely. Not a good foundation.
A long road to travel
You see, there are a lot of emotional obstacles to be removed before the NFL should even begin calculating its return on investment. If the league wants success in Europe, they have to stop being a Star Trek convention where fans dig out their dusted uniforms to show appreciation for long-gone stars like Joe Montana and Brett Favre, or show up in a Tom Brady jersey from a time when the quarterback didn’t sport fashionable haircuts influenced by Giselle Bündchen.
The NFL needs to understand our culture, our desires, and our challenges. The endeavour for a London-based franchise could be a very ambitious undertaking to unify fans in Europe under one team. Indeed, this would be a precedent and could thrive, if marketing and business take a backseat to authenticity and true commitment to a diverse fan base.
This article was written by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com