Soccer's Coming War for London with the NFL

The NFL outflanks the FA, outguns the EPL and is about to swindle the mayor of the capital of football
by Mike Firpo   |   Tuesday, November 06, 2012

London Olympic Stadium

Who would have thought that a soulless white elephant stadium would lead to the grandest sports battle ever witnessed?

Well, that's what we could be in for as the now vacant Olympic Stadium brings about the war between the biggest sport on the planet versus the most successful sports league in history.

As FIFA's golden towers sit idle as ever plotting their next self-imposed disaster, the English are left to unwittingly defend the sport that they gave to the world. Only, many do not yet see the upcoming battle, for the fog of today's premiership paradise is far too thick.

So before the cannons smoke, the trumpets sound and the siege begins to rattle the walls, let's look at how we got here...

BACKGROUND

The 2012 Olympic Games in London this past summer left many bits of fancy sporting infrastructure in its wake. Many of them dubiously needed as most Olympic facilities from Salt Lake to Beijing become decaying relics after their month of international glory.

For London, there has been no facility, and from recent Olympics, with as much pre- and post-games furor over the legacy benefits, ownership and local usage rights so heated than the Olympic Stadium that was built in the east of London.

The 80k stadium sits empty since the circus left town – its track not being ran on, its seats not being sat in and the corridors not being trotted upon.

The main issue that has confronted the stadium from even before it was constructed was who could manage it so that it doesn’t become a white elephant like so many facilities do after major international tournaments that win bids for elaborate stadia, but post-facto are too big for their local needs and clubs.

Making matters worse, the stadium was inexplicably guaranteed to have a permanent track surrounding the perimeter of the field.

The issue – even if the Olympic Stadium snagged a few of the annual track and field events it could, there is no way those events could pay for the upkeep of the facility. In other words, the promises that Britain made to the International Olympic Committee while bidding was not realistic for long-term fiscal sanity, even if more money was invested to downscale the stadium to 25,000 or 30,000 seats. The stadium must find other tenants and at least one big anchor tenant to cover most of the costs.

The suitors and bids did come and there were more than 100 of them. I mean it’s not often that one of the world’s greatest cities has a brand new stadium that is basically being offered up inside the city limits. AEG bid with the help of Tottenham Hotspur, who already had a smaller stadium deal next door to their current stadium but were testing waters outside of their north London quarters. F1, cricket, rugby, Major League Baseball and many more threw their hat in the ring to land Britain’s 3rd largest stadium, but most gave up or were dismissed in this meandering mess.

During the process the original plans didn’t call for the track to remain, but than facing pressure from UK Athletics and others the Olympic Park Legacy Company made that a compulsory stipulation, ruling out many potential bids.

The track has become the noose around any logical outcome for this stadium.

The AEG-Spurs bid wisely didn’t want the seemingly mandatory track to remain, with AEG President Tim Leiweke saying: "I think it's a crime if you sacrifice having a perfect football stadium for convincing yourself you are going to do a track and field event every 10 years ... that can't stand on its own two feet. With football, you're going to get 30-plus matches a year and you'll be able to talk about naming rights and founding partners and suites and the revenue streams to make these kind of venues work … "

During this time the more local football clubs of east London, Leyton Orient and West Ham United, showed major interest, submitted their own bids and publicly voiced their appeals as to why they should control the stadium.

West Ham, now back in the EPL, and its new owners controversially wanted to move from their more eastern setting at Upton Park because there were very little possibilities for future expansion if they remained. They wanted to downscale the stadium to 60k seats and retain the track to meet the IOC obligations. Though the move would take it out of its traditional fanbase heartland, the club management saw the Olympic Stadium as an opportunity of a generation, even if many Hammers fans disagreed.

Leyton Orient cried foul that a much bigger local club was coming to its backyard and going to erode its much smaller fanbase that had more claims to this area of east London. Eventually Leyton proposed both clubs share the facility and were seemingly willing to bend on much. West Ham, though, wasn’t interested, and common sense again failed this process.

Both clubs have their own stadiums; actually most of the current 14 pro football clubs in London have their own stadiums. There are even a lot of decently sized stadiums like: Wembley (90k) the FA owned national football stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium (60k), Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge (41k trying to expand to 55k), Spurs’ White Hart Lane (36k, new stadium would be 56k), West Ham’s Upton Park (35k) and many smaller ones.

With all those big stadiums around London, it makes you scratch your head that the Olympic Stadium was built at all. It seems a mighty waste when newly built Wembley cost the FA $1.2 billion and was big and modern enough for the Olympics.

It would seem that the only logical solution would be to give the stadium to football with all its fans and matchdays. West Ham seemed to have the inside track as the preferred bid. Even London’s new Mayor Boris Johnson, and now chairman of the London Legacy Development Corporation responsible for deciding the future of the Olympic Stadium, seemed to favor football as the long-term tenant.

But the countless rounds of bidding and postponed votes meant the decisions kept getting stalled. The situation started to seem untenable.

ENTER THE GIANTS

The NFL has played preseason games in London and worldwide since 1986, known largely as the American Bowl. That lasted until 2005 and closely coincided with the termination of the NFL Europe in 2007. The NFL decided it wanted to change its strategy and play regular season games overseas. In 2005, the NFL International Series was born in Mexico City, and played in front of 103,000 in the first NFL regular season game abroad.

A failed pre-season China Bowl never materialized in 2007, but the NFL set its sights on a less exotic and far-flung nation to begin its newly tooled international conquest.

Since 2007, the NFL has come to London for regular season one-off matches, playing at Wembley to 80,000 sized crowds paying for costly tickets.

All seemed harmonious.

The English FA even seemed wise for getting new rent revenue outside of its normal English national team, FA/League Cup and concert fare. With the stadium costing so much to build and probably not necessary given how many quality EPL stadiums are available nationwide – any opportunity the old FA can grab at cash it’s hard to blame them for wanting to do.

Except this one.

The dusty blue blazered crowd that runs the FA unwittingly let the big bad wolf in the house.

There are some sports businesses and leagues that don’t take kindly to others and their sporting rivals: Aussie Rules, Gaelic Football … ESPN.

But none, none, have the financial might, brazen expansionism and ruthlessly aggressive attitude of the NFL. Even the nebulous world of soccer with all their friendlies abroad, shirt sales, satellite clubs … pale in comparison to the big dreams of the world’s biggest league.

Lots of leagues want to expand their brands, broadcasting rights values and merchandising sales overseas. They are businesses after all and in order to grow, they have to seek out ways to expand and increase profits. The NBA, NHL and other North American leagues, like most domestic companies, have been trying to tap into these new markets for years now. The EPL and soccer as a whole, outside of FIFA, are relatively late to this game.

After the NFL canned its NFL Europe league to focus on growing the existing NFL brands abroad, it seemed that maybe it was just the Super Bowl that they’d push. Being that they just about saturated the USA for ratings, exposure and meaning - seeing as how their championship match is since the 1990s a de-facto American holiday with huge caravans of transitory bandwagons forming to eat, drink, gamble and pretend they understand the rules of a league that really has transcended sport at this point and shifted into spectacle.

So how could the NFL go further? And where to go?

How about the home of real football – its distant ancestor that is also home to the world’s preeminent football league and its spiritual heartland, which, not so coincidentally, has some of the most loyal fans in the world. Outside of the USA, the English are the best traveled football fans and spend disproportionate amounts of their salary to support their beloved clubs and national team.

I’ve always said that for American soccer to be successful it needs Texas, the heartland of fandom and currently gridiron fandom. Like the early Christians who went to Greece and lands of existing believers to proselytize, so to must soccer follow. It’s easier to convert the devout of a different belief than to convert a non-believer. If someone loves sports, soccer can come. If they don’t care about sports, it’s harder.

So it’s not really a coincidence that passionate England is where the NFL decided to make its best stand for international expansion with its new post NFL Europe era. England and London made sense. Especially logistically as it is relatively a short trip between the US east coast and one of the closest wealthy first world nations. It also doesn’t hurt that it has a very strong currency nowadays.

I WANT THE WHOLE WORLD & I WANT IT NOW!

But the NFL never stops once they start. They are like a sporting juggernaut with never-ending thirst for growth and a tremendous amount of resources at their disposal from TV rights that dwarf almost all other leagues … and sports.

Coincidentally, they have not become the USA’s pastime over traditional baseball and not gotten where they are today by making bad moves. Most of the NFL’s big decisions are self-serving, aggressive and ultimately fruitful for their ownership and growth of the league. They also have mastered the most important keys to successful modern sports: suites, community subsidized stadiums, sponsorship, properly located stadiums, TV and properly sized stadiums.

The London Mayor, who is so vitally important to this Olympic Stadium process, was so smitten after the most recent NFL match a week ago that he is in talks for further NFL dealings.

"Sunday's game at Wembley, in front of over 80,000 fans, further cements London's reputation as the natural home of American football outside of the United States," his office said. "Given the ever growing popularity of gridiron on this side of the Atlantic, the mayor and his team have held a number of meetings with senior executives in the last few days to explore further opportunities involving the NFL and London. The talks were exploratory. We are at an early stage, but the signs are encouraging."

So not only will there be an expanded two regular season NFL games to be held at Wembley until 2016, which will see struggling local attendance-getter Jacksonville Jaguars as the permanent home team, but there could be something much more permanent on the horizon.

Here’s the kicker – rumors are that if all goes well after the 2016 deal, and they usually do for the NFL with their meticulously constructed mega moves, the NFL is considering putting 10 regular season games per year in London. Reverse sporting colonialism baby!

The scary part (and trust me, soccer-football should be scared of this) it has been mentioned that the NFL has a leg up on West Ham and Leyton Orient as the new anchor tenant of the Olympic Stadium.

The NFL wants to put their overgrown paws on London and control a venue. Guess who wouldn’t get a cut of the action anymore? Football. The English FA. Any local club. All of the proceeds would go to the NFL. It would also become much more profitable than renting Wembley annually, and soon to be twice a year.

They could host as many exhibitions as they want … OR … they could put a full-time NFL franchise there as to avoid putting NFL teams on overseas flights during the season. The move would be about as ballsy as when the Russians put a metal flag on the bottom of the Arctic sea floor. That flag is still there and you better believe once the NFL gets a London franchise, they are never leaving either.

The league that wants (and will get) a sweetheart billion dollar stadium in LA, the league that extorts cities for stadium deals that if not met pulls the megalith profit-extractors out of town, the league that pays its players pretty badly given they have billions in profits, the league that still doesn’t take care of its retired and debilitated like it should and the same league that recently wouldn’t cancel, postpone or even change the start time to a match in New York/New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy obliterated the landscape and despite the NYC Marathon being nixed.

This is who the EPL, the FA and football are dealing with. This league wants to put its imperious flag in the cradle of football.

Of course, the FA and English clubs and fans aren’t too worried. Why should they be? They have had centuries of dominance and the sport of football is as much a part of their culture as the monarchy and ridiculing the French.

But the English should not overlook the NFL. That would be sheer folly. It is too powerful, too wealthy, too capitalistic, too progressive, too flashy, too territorial and as sparse mega events – too addictive.

The Olympic Stadium must not be allowed to be controlled by the NFL. The EPL, the FA and the local London clubs will all be hard-pressed, over time, to compete with the limited fixtures (of which soccer waters itself down with too many in England, with replays, League Cups, etc) but highly attended event strategy of American gridiron football.

Who wants to go to oodles of matches at crummy old stadiums for a bit of an era gone by (see baseball) when down the block is the glitzy London Monarchs taking on the Dallas Cowboys for example, a sports club that dwarfs almost all English clubs outside of Arsenal and Manchester United in terms of financial clout, attendance, brand awareness, etc. Yes, some will still cling to the nostalgia, but if that sentimentality really worked rebellious FC Manchester would have overtaken Manchester United by now. The masses love the coliseum and the best gladiators. The NFL puts on the best show of any league in the world, even the EPL.

Yes, the Premier League still does amazing overseas, especially East Asia and ironically in North America. But over time, if the NFL has its frontier fort in east London, a traditionally gritty working class part of town home to loyal fans (see Pittsburgh Steelers) … they will eventually challenge the EPL hegemony.

Doubt it? Think baseball in the 1980s thought the NFL would supplant it as “the” American sport? Yet it did.

On its trajectory, the NFL will keep getting stronger in the USA with expanded league size, likely going to 40 one day. Coincidentally, if the NFL merged or bought out their expanding league cousins, the CFL of Canada it would have over 41 teams with the addition of Ottawa in 2014. After the next CBA between the NFL owners and its players, the regular league season will likely go form 16 to 17 games. Those extra dates will likely be part of the International Series, thus not cutting into the rare event theory and threatening their dogmatic sell-out philosophy. That extra week will see growth not only internationally in all the cities (London, etc) that host, but help domestic growth by further cutting into their rival American sports’ fanbase, air time, media space and interest.

There are few leagues in the world like the NFL; most have a ton more games in their season. The nature of the physically brutal sport, makes it impossible to have too long of a season but you better believe a longer regular season, more teams, another superclub in LA and the expansion into a foreign land of indoctrinated sports fanatics, although a different denomination, will payoff and make the NFL even bigger than it is today.

And once London is established, why not Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, Moscow, Sydney, Tokyo or Beijing?

The FA has just been out-flanked. They unintentionally let a stronger predator into the house in order to repay some of the huge debt accumulated by their previous mistake, the extravagant building of unnecessary Wembley. In doing so, they have shown the NFL that they can host events in London, do well, profit and keep up their high standards.

But the NFL will not stop there, especially if they control Olympic Stadium. They will increase the number of teams and games, while not paying rent to football and putting money back into the community. They say London will increase their tax base, but logically a foreign league and its teams are taking money OUT of London, not making more. Rather it will be sent back to New York, Jacksonville and Minnesota.

Like the recent approval for a sale of part of iconic Heathrow Airport to a Chinese firm and the loss of potentially a national icon to try and counter gloomy financial times – this will be a loss for the nation, and in this case for football, because like it or not, England is the sentinel of football.

I love my nation, but I also get turned off by its insensitive imperialism to other cultures. Americans aren’t taking over EPL ownership because they love the clubs like the locals do, or even like the new energy money and overlords of Asia – the Glazers, Lerners, Fenway Sports Group and other Yank owners are there for profit, plain and simple.

Likewise, the NFL will only be there for profit and that will come at the expense of football. It will take time, but they have that and tons of cash to make their strategies a reality. Speaking of which, they plan on moving into Asia in the 2030s. What other league around the world is seriously thinking about 20 years down the road?

If the Mayor of London lets the sporting goliaths of The States take over their contentious Olympic Stadium – they will have not just let the wolf in, but, in doing so, they will have also given him a room next to the nursery and keys to the house.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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