Will the NFL Ever Move a Team (Like the Bills) to Europe?


On my way home from my awful day job the other day I was listening to ESPN Radio, as I typically do. I forget what show was on at the time (I believe it was Scott Van Pelt’s show, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it) but they were talking about the possibility of an NFL team one day moving to Europe. Would it be feasible? I’ve talked on this site in the past about potential new NFL cities, and I did include London on the list. As I wrote then, I’m definitely not a fan of the idea, but could it happen? Let’s take a look at each potential issue that could help or hurt a team’s chances to relocate across the Atlantic.

Question 1: Does the NFL actually want a team in Europe?

Well, if the current lockout has taught us anything about the NFL management, it’s that the NFL is constantly scouring for new sources of revenue. As popular as the NFL is here in the States, there’s not much market penetration anywhere else. The NFL seems determined to change that. Roger Goodell is on record as saying he thinks a team in Europe could work:

“Each year, the different barometers indicate that our popularity continues to rise,” Goodell said last year. “I think the next step will be multiple games (in Europe). And if that’s successful then I think the idea of a franchise here is realistic.”

That’s a pretty solid indication that this is certainly on the table in management circles.

Question 2: Does Europe want an NFL team?

Well, the biggest American football venture in Europe to date – NFL Europe – closed shop in 2007. Attendance was never great, and by the end the multi-country league that once had teams in Scotland, Spain, Holland, England, and Germany was down to five teams in Germany and one in Holland. Granted, that was minor-league football. It’s pretty easy to assume attendance for NFL games would be a bit better.

The NFL’s annual International Series games in London have done pretty well, drawing large crowds to New Wembley Stadium. But that’s just one game a year. The leap from one to eight (plus preseason games) is pretty steep.

I’m sure some Europeans would be pretty happy about a team. The problem is that many of them would be expatriate Americans, and they would mainly be happy to see THEIR OWN favorite teams when they come to Europe for a game. Would the European team be able to build a fanbase of its own? I really don’t know.

Question 3: Where’s this team going to play?

The obvious answer is London. That seems to be the target city based on the international series being played there every year. But where would the team play in London? New Wembley? I’m not sure the English Soccer authorities would be too pleased with (at least) 10 football games a year tearing up the turf on their marquee stadium – especially a turf that they’ve had trouble keeping playable in the past. And is football truly popular enough there to build a fan base? I don’t think so. At least not yet.

If it’s not London, maybe it could be in Germany. NFL Europe was basically “NFL Germany” by the end of its run, with 5/6ths of the league based there. So clearly there’s some appetite for the game. Maybe a team in Berlin? But then, Germany is even further away from the States than London, so there’s be more logistical issues to work out.

Question 4: How the heck would the schedule work?

Having a team about 3,300 miles and four time zones away from its closest opponent creates a whole set of logisitical issues. (By contrast, the furthest away any two current NFL teams are from each other is about 2,700 miles.) That’s a brutal trip. You couldn’t expect the European team to make that trip (and suffer that jet lag) more than a few times a year and be competitive.  So what do they do? Take a three or four week tour of the U.S. a few times a season and just practice in the States between games? Does the team have a special training facility somewhere in the U.S. to stay during the week? And what division does this team play in? Just a lot of stuff to work out.

Also, the team would have to play all night games due to the time zone difference. If the games were played at Wembley, that’s not going to help with the slippery conditions that have plagued the games in England thus far. Also, the team would never be able to host a Sunday Night or Monday Night game, as it would have to start after midnight local time to be shown during the appropriate time in the U.S.

Question 5: Are any players going to want to play for this team?

Of course some will. A lot of players would move to Antarctica for the chance to play in the NFL. And at least one player, Broncos quarterback (and drinking all-star) Kyle Orton, says a lot of players would come to London: “London is a great place because you’re going to have to find a combination of a city where people want to live and play for that team and I think this would be a great choice,” Orton said. “You’ve got to find a city that you can get 53 guys that kind of want to live over here. London’s a great city and I think you’d have a lot of interest from players.”

So I guess that’s a dumb question. The real question is: will the team have any chance to sign marquee free agents? It wouldn’t be easy to play for the European team: you’d have to uproot your family and live in an entirely different country for at least half the year. Would a big star ever want to go through the hassle? I really don’t know the answer to that.

And then there’s the issue of training camp and summer workouts. Would the Europe team have these activities in Europe or back in the States? It’d be obnoxious for players to fly 3,500+ miles just for a three day minicamp.

So all in all, I simply think it’s a bad idea…but it’s not impossible. It might be worth a try in a decade or so if there’s any proof that there’s a potential fan base in London. But for time being, I think any Bills fans worried about the team leaving for London can relax for a while. Now if you’re worried about Toronto or Los Angeles…continue worrying.