"Baseball will never work in Europe"

Our member Nicolas Taeuber talks with sports writer and football expert TJ Hatter about the NFL’s special relationship with London, different sporting cultures and how socialism in football prevents a European NBA team.


IjT: TJ, great talking to you. As a writer for football.com you have lately been focusing on a potential expansion of the NFL towards Europe and specifically the UK. For somebody who has missed that development, could you briefly summarize the essentials?

TJ:  Happy to Nic and thanks for having me. This past weekend the NFL, which had been coyly hinting at an increased presence into the UK and Europe, tipped their hand. As I write about here the way forward for the NFL has two foregone conclusions:

The league will play eight games in London around 2020, if not before, and the league will eventually have a Superbowl in London. If the NFL moves a team, that team will be Jacksonville. Their owner also owns a Premier League team, Fulham, and he has committed to Jacksonville playing in London every year for the immediate future in a move to ensure that the UK sees the Jaguars as London’s team. Heck, they wouldn’t even have to change the team name. Just have a cat driving a fancy car down the M1 and you’re all set.

The other prospect, and this links to how the NFL is beginning to change NFL fandom, is to have eight games with different teams headed over each time. This is what I call the „RedZone“ approach. RedZone is a channel offered in the States and, I’m lead to believe, in the UK, which allows fans to focus on the league as a whole rather than on one individual team.

But whichever they do, eventually a Superbowl will be placed in London! It’s a fantastic city which can easily handle the increased attention and tourism and it would be a good national showcase for both partners in the „Special Relationship“.

IjT: So, what could actually stop that development from happening?

TJ: As I’ve said in some of my coverage, the complications to having a team in London are many. Travel gets many of the headlines, but as you know Nick, currency and taxation issues are going to be tremendously difficult to deal with for an NFL franchise based  in London whose Salary Cap is based off an American dollar that is weaker than the pound. Merely having eight games there with 16 different teams, thus having folks alternate when they go and when they do not, is very good for the UK consumer and allows the NFL to expand there without the commitment of an entire franchise.

IjT: Thank you very much for the summary, TJ. Let us assume now that that all the issues can be resolved and London will get its own NFL team. Don’t you think there might be other problems? Let us first talk about troubles regarding a certain kind of ownership feeling. The Jaguars haven’t won a single game so far this season. So despite London and the UK being a huge market why should be people go and see their team slaughtered every time or buy merchandise, when you have a variety of soccer teams around. Wouldn’t you say that if London doesn’t get a team that competes for the super bowl fairly quickly the European adventure of the NFL might be relatively short lived?

TJ: Your point about The Jags being on the struggle bus is well taken, but I’d counter it with two points:

  1. It’s only eight home games. In a city of 8.1 million people that is easily accessible to most of the 63 million residents of the UK, getting roughly 80,000 people to eight home games – particularly if they have a fun atmosphere surrounding them — isn’t too tough.

  2. Also, UK fans have shown a very generous attitude toward their teams when lackluster seasons in the Premier League occur.  Sure they act sardonically but realistically only four or five teams compete for the title every year. Yet elsewhere in the UK fans support their local clubs regardless. If the Jaguars are the British team, rather than merely the London Team, they’d do fairly well.

But to concede to you, NFL executives are clearly worried about that notion, which is why they may actually decide to put eight games there comprised of 16 different teams. It is the less conventional, but perhaps safer move. It’s hard to get sick of anything if the teams change every week, just like the RedZone channel.

IjT: Another challenge I see centers around different sporting cultures in Europe and the US. To say it quite generally Americans prefer quite a service oriented stadium, with a variety of food courts and a rather orchestrated atmosphere with cheerleaders jumping around and marching bands walking across the pitch. Judging from European soccer stadiums the fans like to sing at their own time and have quite a bit of autonomy. Do you think Europeans would embrace an Americanized stadium experience or would the NFL have to become more European?

TJ: The NFL’s biggest problem, in UK and the US, is that the fan experience is almost too good at home and there is less incentive to go to games. Unless they’re surrounded by the kind of atmosphere that European soccer stadiums provide and that London games enjoy now.

IjT: I can see Germany having a lot of locational advantages as well that might attract the NFL. We have got US military bases, a growing interest in American football, especially from the younger generation, and a great football stadium infrastructure. So when can we expect to see the Berlin Buccaneers playing or would you say that the NFL’s main focus will remain on the UK market?

TJ: I wonder, with respect to other European countries, if the language barrier is too strong to overcome. Also, if there is a team in London those located on bases in Germany can just hop on a plane without too much fuss.

IjT: Let’s get away from football and talk about the other American major leagues. I personally think it would be easier for them to expand into Europe. The sole exception being baseball, which just won’t catch on with Europeans. But the popularity of basketball is continually increasing in Germany, also due to the fact that we already got our own NBA superstar with Nowitzki. Granted, compared to football, establishing a European team is harder for the NBA because of the tighter schedules, but you still could have some games abroad each year. Do you have any explanation why the NFL is much more venturous compared to the other leagues?

TJ: You are absolutely right about basketball being the best bet. In terms of world wide influence, it is second only to soccer. I think the connection is that both are accessible to any socioeconomic group. All you need is a ball and a hoop or goal. Provided you have those, you can play. Heck, with Basketball, you don’t even need to have other players around to shoot some hoops.

The reason the NFL can take chances is because of revenue. Every single NFL team, regardless of where it is geographically based, makes billions of dollars. Even Jacksonville, which is the team I believe, will go to London if a move takes place.

That is because the NFL owners have accepted a form of socialism (that socialism does not trickle down to the players who compete in a cartel style free market) where they all share the Television revenue equally, but keep the money from their gate receipts. So, for the good of the League, the Giants and Jets in New York and the Bears in Chicago and the Cowboys in Dallas do not hog all the money they make being in such a huge market from teams in Green Bay and Buffalo. The US is American Football mad, so the TV revenue flows freely amongst them all. And the league has been quite brilliant in always seeking more money, at every turn. The move into the UK is a part of that, particularly because Jacksonville is a dead end for revenue.

Contrast that to NBA teams, many of which get profits that are not nearly as handsome as football. Also, the league has also oversaturated the market. There are too many regular season games (and I say that as someone who loves basketball) and too many teams. Is it possible that an NBA team in London or Berlin would make much more sense? Certainly. But the NBA doesn’t have the money to take such a risk. Even lousy NFL teams in bad locations make money. NBA teams are a lot more like the free market. Oklahoma City for example is fun now, but when Kevin Durant leaves they go to being a miserable team. Then the people there are unlikely to go to every game the way they do now. That has been proven to be true in North Carolina, Tennessee and with other smaller franchises.

So that’s why they’re more risk averse. The NBA is an odd model. It’s part European Football, where the teams like Real Madrid make and spend a lot of money, but part NFL, where there are constraints on spending the money. That is also part of the caution there. And you’re right, baseball will never work in Europe.


TJ Hatter writes about the NFL and college football for football.com and outkickthecoverage.com. In his recent articles he focused on the NFL’s potential European expansion of the NFL. Having graduated with a MSc in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh TJ is also dedicated to transatlantic affairs and regularly writes about them. You can find all his articles on http://www.tjhatter.com and follow him on Twitter @TJ22Hatter

  • 13.11.2013
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