There was controversy recently in the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets game played in London, England. Dolphins fans complained (and rightfully so) of the loss of a home game played against a divisional opponent. Once considered to be one of the weakest divisions in football, the now-adequate AFC East has turned into a race between who can get the second place spot behind the New England Patriots. This brings with it the opportunity to compete for a playoff spot. This logic flows easily into the ideology of the NFL wanting to put a team in Europe.
WHY, OH WHY?
Why does the NFL want to place a team in Europe? While a valid question, the answer itself remains fairly obvious: money. Anything the NFL does is to increase revenue to the league, and adding a team (now they’re talking about two teams) in Europe would do so — or so conventional wisdom teaches. There simply isn’t a bigger, more dominant sport in North America than football, and the revenue is evidence of this. As the new film Concussion tells us, the NFL “owns a day of the week”. If the NFL were to tap into even a small portion of Europe and extend their brand overseas, the gains would be unimaginable.
The eventual losses will be as well.
The issues with starting an NFL franchise, either by expansion or relocation, are plentiful. Starting with the most obvious, an expansion franchise in Europe is going to be a bad football team. Period. All expansion teams are. Going back to 1995 when the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jacksonville Jaguars joined the league, there has not been an expansion team to finish above .500 in their first season. The Panthers finished 7-9 and the Jaguars finished 4-12. If we’re counting the Baltimore Ravens in 1996 as an “expansion” team (which is pushing it, but for arguments sake we will include it), they finished 4-12 in their inaugural season. The most recent expansion team in the league happened in 2002, when the Houston Texans (re)joined the NFL. Their record? 4-12.
It goes beyond a single season, however.
In 1996, both the Panthers and Jaguars finished above .500. The Panthers, impressively, finished 12-4. This would be the last time the Panthers finished above .500 for 6 seasons until 2002 when they lost the Super Bowl. Their collective record in that time was 34-62, including a 1-15 season. The Jaguars had a more impressive and accomplished record in the years immediately after their inaugural season, but have done little to nothing in the league since. As a team since 1995, the Jaguars are 148-176. Their bout in the NFL could not be called a successful one thus far. The Ravens have won two championships since they re-entered the league and are easily the most successful “expansion” franchise in recent history. The Texans are quite the opposite of the Ravens in this regard. Since 2002, the Texans have had four winning seasons and have made the playoffs twice, never venturing beyond the divisional round. The Texans, it should be pointed out, have as many two-win seasons as playoff appearances in franchise history.
Now, it may seem like I am picking on the Texans and Jaguars, and I assure you I am not. The fact of the matter is that expansion franchises within the United States have failed to this point to generate any kind of sustainable success. One of the four teams has won a championship since 1995, dating back two decades. The other three have losing records as a franchise, and only one seems to have found itself being competitive in recent years. This has a lot to do with poor management, coaching and execution on Sundays, but that is part of the overall point as well — who does the NFL think is going to play for a European team?
HEAD EAST, YOUNG MAN
Is there a successful NFL coach right now that would leave for Europe? Bear in mind what leaving overseas entails — leaving family and friends behind to venture across the pond for an undisclosed amount of time whilst being tied down in what could be seen as a building project. There is a list of coaches this season who may or may not lose their job, and the list includes some recognizable and important names. Coaches like Sean Payton, Chuck Pagano and Jim Caldwell, all of which have been successful and two of which are championship winning coaches, are on the hot seat. Do you think any of the three, of all the potential coaching jobs up for grabs this season within the borders of the United States, would leave for Europe? Where it could get even more interesting is if we begin to pose the question of whether or not these coaches would rather be a coordinator on a successful franchise than take on the hassle of a building project in Europe. From a purely hypothetical standpoint, let’s say Todd Haley gets a head coaching opportunity at the end of the season and Payton is fired by the Saints. Now (again, purely for arguments sake), the NFL brings an expansion team into London and will play in the NFL in 2016. Do you think Payton would head to Europe, or would he rather coordinate the Steelers’ offense until another coaching opportunity were to arise within the States. I’m more inclined to believe the latter.
There is also the issue of free agency which ties directly in with the coaching and front office issues. How many big ticket free agents would a European team be able to coax? How many of these free agents would leave behind family and friends to play for a building project in Europe? How many would feel comfortable in leaving behind everything they’ve known to venture into something like this? How many of them would take a little bit less money to stay in North America and continue playing football? I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but I’d be willing to bet on the overwhelming majority would stay in the United States. This, effectively, does two things: one, it doesn’t allow any true or exciting talent to be placed within the organization from the start. Two, it disrupts a building project that would have already taken a lengthy amount of time. Furthermore, if we begin talking about the draft, how many top prospects would take the Eli Manning approach and simply refuse to sign with the team if drafted by them? We’re talking about the possibility of moving a young man from everything he’s known in his entire life and shipping him over to an entirely different continent.
Now, there will be a crop of free agents that would be ready and willing to sign with a European team. These free agents, however, would be the cast-offs that are currently sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring in case of injury. This is not a viable method to build a team, nor to begin a building project from the ground up.
All of this ties into one common theme: patience. The NFL sees only the opportunity to make money off of this idea, but the reality is it would be likely to fail for one simple reason: how patient will the fans be? We’re talking about bringing an entirely new game to an entirely new continent, hoping and praying that fans are willing to wait for the new organization to one day become competitive, despite the overwhelming odds against it. There are expansion teams inside the United States that are struggling to attract free agents and have access to competent management and coaching and have not yet figured out how to remain competitive for any length of time. If players aren’t inclined to sign with the Jaguars, what makes the NFL think that Europe would be any different?
How patient are fans in London going to be when they’ve fielded a team of what will essentially be cast-offs, winning between one and three games per season consecutively? If, after five years, an NFL-based team in London has not had a winning season, nor sniffed a .500 season, how many fans do you think are going to be showing up to the games? How raucous do you think Wembley Stadium is going to be when London is down 27-0 at halftime to a perennially competitive team?
There is, fortunately, a place in North America that seemingly has the collective patience of saints. And no, it is not New Orleans.
THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
Oh, Canada. Our home and native land. Home of the igloo and where it snows all year ’round. Where we use Monopoly money for our spending needs.
It’s also home to Toronto, perhaps the most patient sports city in North America. Sorry, potential Maple Leafs fans reading this, this one is going to hurt.
The Toronto Maple Leafs play in the NHL and are effectively the Cleveland Browns of hockey. They’ve been perennially bad for about a decade now and have not hoisted a championship trophy since 1967. They’ve had flashes since the early ’90’s, but have been more dumpster fire than anything else since the mid-2000’s.
They also, until very recently, have sold out almost every home game for a very long time.
See, Toronto is the mecca of hockey. Detroit is known as Hockey Town, USA. Toronto could be known as Hockey Town, World. The Maple Leafs have been bad for so long that, in my lifetime, I do not remember them being good. I have memories from when I was a child when they weren’t awful, sure, but I do not distinctly remember them ever being more than just good enough. Toronto has quite a few folk heroes when it comes to the Leafs. Ask any fan about Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmore or Felix Potvin and you’re sure to hear about the “good ol’ days”.
The Leafs have just embarked on another lengthy rebuilding project, albeit this time it looks like they’ve done all of the right things to right this ship. They’ve just hired likely the best coach in the league, and have finally begun acquiring and keeping young talent instead of shipping it away in horrible, no good trades and have finally stopped wasting their picks in the draft.
During this most recent and failed rebuild, the Leafs management encouraged fans to remain patient as there was a goal and vision for the team. This was in 2010. One playoff appearance in a lockout-shortened season later and the entire previous management, coaching staff and most of the players were let go.
The message five years later? More patience. This time they’re going to get it right. Promise.
How does this relate to football? A professional football team in Toronto would get every benefit of the doubt imaginable from this fanbase. There wouldn’t be any expectations of winning for the first little while. In fact, fans would acknowledge and accept the fact that an expansion team here would result in things being bad long before they ever became good. This also addresses a couple of key flaws in the Europe expansion idea.
For starters, players would be much more willing to sign and/or be drafted to a team that is about an hour away from the Buffalo border. They would be taken out of their comfort zone playing in Canada, sure, but how much more comfortable would they be with that than having to cross the Atlantic Ocean every time they had an away game or wanted to visit family? Coaches would be more inclined to sign here, as would players, and thus a competitive team would be achieved in a much more reasonable time than overseas. American players are not terrified of being north of the border like they used to be, as the Toronto Blue Jays are a perfect example of this. The Jays mostly consist of American players, and we have heard nothing but how much they love our city and playing in front of the fans game in and game out. The Canadian and American sports culture is almost identical.
Toronto sports fans are passionate, fiery, feisty and have a love for their teams that goes beyond the rational. They are not without their flaws, however.
The NFL tried the whole NFL-in-Canada thing, and it was a resounding failure. The Bills had a few games scheduled here a few years ago, putting them inside the Rogers Centre. There were a few flaws with this plan, however. For starters, the assumption that most Canadians are Bills fans is a mistake. In fact, the polls done recently show that the most popular teams in Southern Ontario are actually the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and the Steelers. The Bills ranked eighth on this same list. In this particular case, proximity had little to do with fandom. From 2008 through 2013, the Bills played a total of 8 games in the Rogers Centre (two preseason, six regular season). Now, there were a couple of issues with this plan right off the bat. One, having the Bills play in the Rogers Centre year in and year out in front of fans who mostly don’t care about the Bills was a bad idea. Two, the competition and excitement of the games just was not up to par. While the combined records of the teams they played throughout the Stadium Series was above .500 (51-45), the overall feeling was the fans went to go see the team the Bills were playing, not the Bills themselves. And, really, who could blame them? From 2008 through 2013, the Bills did not have a winning season, and had an overall record of 35-61. The product on the field did not live up to the cost of the tickets for most fans. Keep in mind, this is not a hometown team, nor a team that cracks the top 5 popularity list in the area they’re playing in.
Things would be very different if Toronto had a team of their own.
Toronto has their own football team and they’ve actually had to move from the Rogers Centre to BMO Field due to lack of interest in the team. This is for a couple of reasons, but it’s notably because most Torontonians who are football fans are NFL fans and not Toronto Argonaut fans. In spite of what some may think south of the border, the CFL is not immensely popular up here (it could be, but that’s a different argument all together).
A Toronto professional football team would have a similar impact that the Blue Jays and Raptors have had. Throughout the last half of the season, the Jays’ Twitter account has been using the hashtag #ComeTogether. The Jays are seen as being “Canada’s Team”. They’re the only professional baseball team in Canada and have united a country. Fans from all over Canada have come to the playoff games against the Texas Rangers so far. The Raptors have had a similar feel about them in recent years. A professional football team in Toronto could be a rallying cry for the rest of the country. It could unite fans from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island.
Expectations would be low. An entire country as their fan base. Patience would be preached and young players would not rebuff the chance of coming here.
Sadly, the NFL already knows Canada is a hotbed for NFL fandom. They have no reason to expand here, because they have an opportunity to expand to another continent and make money for a few years before the novelty of having a team in Europe fails and they begin to look at exit options.
That’s what an NFL team in Europe is — a novelty. A cool idea for a few years before things go back to the way they were and the NFL starts slowly backing out of Europe, looking to move the team elsewhere as it hemorrhages money.
The NFL cannot see the forest through the trees and this has been their problem on many different topics for many years now. When they finally can, Toronto will be ready to accept the NFL with open arms.
Because we’re patient.