There's been some hubbub recently over the idea that the NFL may move a team fulltime across the pond to London. This really isn't new of course, but the concept has in recent days picked up steam, particularly with Rodger Goodell suggesting that they could expand the current London schedule to three games a year.
And for many reasons it is a terrible idea.
Now, first off, could it happen? Well sure. Goodell ultimately can do, in theory, whatever he wants. He really just needs to get the owners to sign off. And considering he has done several things that I personally consider boneheaded, I'm not willing to go on a limb here and say it won't. It does seem like recent history suggests that when Goodell gets something going in his head, it's a matter of time before it becomes actual reality. But it would be one of his dumbest moves of all time, and here's why.
First off, yes the time zone issue actually plays out quite well. Which is obvious considering the NFL has been hosting games in London for quite some time now. And considering there has been relatively surprising success there (especially considering the fact that on a regular basis the games aren't very good due to one team being significantly better than the other), the whole competition with soccer and rugby angle is somewhat moot. One could argue that if it were to grow from a passing curiosity overseas to a regular event, the league may be in for an unpleasant surprise when people begin to lose interest in favor (or favour, as they say) of their already strongly preferred sports. But even that's just theoretical.
But to me there are two issues that are certain, and I'm not the first to say ‘em. Issue the first, and the one most commonly pointed out, is free agency. Let's say you're an NFL free agent, and you have three options on the table: your old team, a team in another state, and the team in London. Unless the team in London is willing to really increase the offer over the others substantially, which do you think will be your knee-jerk preference? Just put that in terms of your own job. Let's say your boss comes to you and says "Bill, you can either take a job in Sacramento, or you can go over to our office in London. Your call." Again, unless the job in London represents a huge promotion or massive amounts of extra cash, are you willing to do it? Perhaps if you're a single guy or gal interested in seeing the world, but if you've got a family (as many FAs do), then that's a whole different issue.
Consider this: Rick Spielman was an absolute jerk to Antoine Winfield. He burned him so badly that Winfield accepted less guaranteed money to go to the Vikings West. But even still he did consider staying with the Vikings for a while- and why? Because he was hesitant to move his family. And that was in the same country! His kids could move from one school to the other with relative ease. Sure there are cultural differences between Minneapolis and Seattle, but they're not enormous. He'd still be able to largely understand the people on the street. (And if you think English people and American people "speak the same language", you've never heard cockney.) Imagine if that scenario had not been between the Minnesota Vikings and the Seattle Seahawks, but between us and the London Seahawks. If moving his family was an issue, ten to one Winfield stays.
See, don't forget the school systems between our two countries are not the same. It can happen, but there is a huge issue for kids switching the school systems. I know this in particular because I had a friend who did the opposite- moved from England to here. His poor kid, a bright one mind you, nearly flunked his first year here simply because the transition between systems was too much. As an NFL FA with kids, that is going to be a big issue. And even if you're an NFL FA with kids but you don't live with them, what are you going to do then? It's likely tough enough for these guys to see kids in that situation during the football season as is. Do you think moving to England will appeal to someone in that situation?
FA is already affected by geography as is. Mike Wallace chose Miami over Minnesota without too much thought largely because of the climate. And before him, Vincent Jackson did the same thing with Tampa. If players don't want to move somewhere within their own nation because of crappy weather, will they want to go overseas to a place with crappy weather? Hmm, don't think so.
And yes, there is the issue of taxation. English tax rates are enormously different than ours, and not in a favorable way. Considering players already have ‘health insurance' via their teams, concepts like universal health care won't help, either.
So for any team in London to really participate in FA, they're going to have to really overpay players to even consider going over, which hurts them significantly. Unless the team can manage to perfectly play the draft (and convince their own FAs to not bolt right back over the Atlantic), this means they have a significant disadvantage.
There's another issue to consider as well- traveling. Already the home team has an advantage over visiting opponents, and this sometimes is exacerbated by the length of travel. The best I can calculate, the longest distance any two opponents would have to currently travel to face each other is Miami and Seattle, a flight roughly of 5 ½ hours with a time difference of 4 hours. Now, as the best I can roughly figure, the closest team to London would be the New England Patriots, who could make the trip (or vice versa) in over 6 ½ hours with a time difference of 5 hours. So you've just increased the formerly worst trip in the NFL by one hour on each issue, and that's via the best trip in this instance. G-d forbid San Francisco travels to London or vice-versa; that's a flight of over 10 ½ hours with 9 hours of time difference.
Thus far this issue has been largely mitigated by the fact that both teams that play their game in London must travel, so both are suffering roughly the same issues. If you change that however to only one team making that hellacious trip, then the home field advantage is completely different. Obviously the visiting team is going to try and make the trip as early as possible so that the jet lag is gone come game day, meaning the typical day off after a game may be history (unless the NFLPA forces the issue). You're sore, you're banged up, but now you've got to cram yourself onto a flight that will be between 6-10 hours. (Imagine what that will feel like if you're an offensive lineman stuck in coach.) And then you've got to get off the flight, try and adjust yourself to a time difference between 5-9 hours, and get to practice. Unless one team is just truly dominant over the other, Vegas would be putting up some ridiculous over-unders favoring the home team. So now you've got crappy games.
Considering these two issues, and in particular the fact that there are very few (if any) remedies for these situations, and this idea is just plain terrible. If you compound the facts- the London team will struggle mightily in FA, will play crappy games, and will likely lose the vast majority of its away games (just imagine the pressure should they magically luck into the playoffs in this situation to have home field advantage and not be a one-and-done), and you've got to wonder what Goodell is thinking (if he even is). Do you think that team is going to successfully compete in the England market against soccer in rugby in that instance? NFL Europa and all the other various incarnations of American football in Europe failed even without these issues. Placing an NFL team over there doesn't help- it actually makes the situation worse.
Making one wonder even more what Goodell is thinking is the fact that, if he is trying to expand past the confined US market (in and of itself not a terrible idea), he has much better options right here at home (so to speak). Canada already has interest in American football, and placing an NFL team north of the border could easily lead to successful competition in that market against the CFL. Just imagine if the Canadian team made the playoffs- I bet that whole nation would rally in support of a "Canada vs. US" battle. Sure the issue of moving your family to another country and all still exists in that situation, but moving from the US to Canada (particularly to a city close to the border) is vastly different than moving from the US to England. And of course the flight difference/ time zone difference disappears. The NBA, MLB, and especially the NHL already have shown that leagues can exist in both nations. Goodell tried also a game in Mexico City a while back- we could contemplate trying a move south of the border as well again (although considering the significant danger that sadly exists there, I could see that just being impossible). I've seen Toronto being suggested several times out there- and we already have the Bills playing there once a year. So why is London being held up as the ideal over them, when the logistics are just night-and-day in terms of difficulty?
As I started out by saying, once Goodell decides he's going to do something, he typically does it. And he's not above doing really dumb things, either. So we may well see the NFL move to London regardless- but it will be a huge mistake.