Oakland's Menelik Watson probably wouldn't mind playing at home.

Photographer: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

NFL Can Follow the Money to London

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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There will be the usual amount of chatter this week about the National Basketball Association one day having teams in Europe, but it’s impossible to conduct an NBA postseason with a team based across the pond, playing one best-of-seven series after another.

The National Football League, however, with its condensed three-week playoff system followed by a two-week break before the Super Bowl, could make the travel and logistics of such a postseason work, making it the only American sports league capable of pulling off overseas expansion.

There continues to be significant momentum for London expansion. A study by Deloitte, commissioned in part by the NFL and released last fall, projected that an NFL team in London would generate $255 million a year for Britain. And the NFL’s international chief marketing officer is on record as predicting expansion to the U.K. by 2022.

But the NFL has one significant hurdle to overcome: its players union.

Any decision to locate teams abroad will need to be collectively bargained with the union, which will have legitimate concerns about 21-year-olds being drafted and sent to live in another country on a semipermanent basis.

This isn’t like buying a Eurail train pass and backpacking through Europe. This is a full-time, highly compensated, extremely precious job. There will be tax issues, payment issues (if the players are paid in dollars but spend their money in euros, how does the league manage the conversion rate?), family issues (what about players who are married? With children? Divorced but with joint custody?). How does the NFL ease those concerns?

What about midseason trades? It was one thing for Percy Harvin to relocate from Seattle to New York last season; what if he were required to relocate in a day’s time from Seattle to London?

The Deloitte study assumes that a “London” team wouldn’t be in London at all -- that the London team would have to be permanently based at a training center in the U.S. and make four two-game road trips to its “home” city to play an eight-game home schedule.

That might ease some of the union’s concerns, but it would also dramatically suppress the ability of Londoners to enjoy the same, year-round relationship (draft parties, off-season workouts, training camp, fan jams) with their team as those fans in true NFL cities -- where the team becomes part of the sociocultural and economic fabric. The only recent comparisons are 1982, when the Raiders lived and practiced in Oakland and played in Los Angeles, and 1995, when the Raiders did the opposite.

There is also one more possible outcome, and that is the NFL expanding not by one team, but four teams, creating a U.K./European division that also would have the positive effect of reducing regular-season travel for those four teams. NFL-sized stadiums -- thanks to soccer -- already exist in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Berlin, Munich, etc.

Under this scenario, London isn’t an outpost; it’s part of a four-team European community that makes being drafted overseas a more common occurrence. And it promotes true expansion -- not the drop-in kind.

Roger Goodell is on record stating he wants to grow NFL revenues to $25 billion from approximately $9.5 billion by 2027. That astronomical uptick won’t occur without a more universal love of American-style football in the U.K., Europe and perhaps even China and South America. It may actually be necessary for the NFL to engage in multiteam expansion abroad, opening up new television markets, in order to hit Goodell’s target.

The New York Knicks’ trip to London this week to play the Milwaukee Bucks comes from this same mind-set. Domestic attendance at U.S. sporting events will continue to flatten due to saturation and competition from the enhanced in-home viewing experience; an overseas game suffers no such mundanity.

Whether it comes in the form of expansion or something less ambitious, professional -- and even college -- teams traveling abroad on a more regular basis during the regular season is sure to continue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net