A new continent awaits
Global expansion is coming. Maybe not this year or next, but eventually, after finally putting a team back in Los Angeles, the NFL is going into another country. It is inevitable. The money is too great.
Toronto and Mexico City will be the North American options, but the NFL would be wise to look to Europe, and specifically to London.
Home to the Olympics next summer, London has proved it can produce an NFL fan base. There has been a regular-season game in London each of the past four years, drawing an average of 83,149 fans in Wembley Stadium. The New York Giants and Miami Dolphins played the first regular-season game in London in 2007, and 81,176 fans attended. The numbers aren't decreasing, and the Chicago-Tampa Bay game Oct. 23 should draw close to 84,000.
The game-day environment has been electric. After playing in London last year, San Francisco cornerback Shawntae Spencer said, "We got to get an NFL team over here. The energy is unbelievable."
Although overseas expansion once was a logistical impossibility, the headaches associated with international travel could be overcome. Traveling from New York to London is no more grueling than traveling from New York to Seattle. Last year after playing in London, the Broncos returned to Denver on a plane that was equipped with a full-size bed for each player.
And the financial windfall from opening up another continent to the NFL could more than offset the jet lag. A tiny percentage of the NFL's $9 billion in revenue comes from international revenue streams. Having a team in Europe would mean new television dollars and more fans to buy jerseys and NFL gear. There are more than 62 million people in the United Kingdom alone.
I went to the NFL's first international regular-season game in Mexico City in 2005. More than 103,000 fans packed the old Azteca Stadium, which was great. The U.S. citizens on the trip, though, were warned not to venture from the hotel for security reasons and not to hail cabs. I vividly remember army personnel holding machine guns along the route to the stadium. Although the security situation in Mexico is worst along the border, it is an issue the NFL must consider.
The NFL needs to rectify the situation in Los Angeles before it looks abroad, but once it does, London is the natural, moneymaking choice.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Timing is perfect to go south
The NFL would love to expand its international appeal by putting a team in London, but that would be too bold.
If the NFL wants to go international, it should put a team in Mexico City. I'd say Toronto, but Toronto already has the Bills, and for the Bills to survive long-term in Western New York, they need the support of NFL fans in Toronto. Mexico City works because it doesn't create logistical problems
The NFL is very structured in timing and scheduling, which is why it works so well as a sport. Having all the franchises on one continent means the league only has to worry about four time zones. A team in Europe would disrupt that.
Mexico City has close to 9 million residents. The NFL has played football games there, and they have been huge successes. Given the good odds of getting a team back into the Los Angeles market, it would only be natural to make Mexico City a priority, which would give an L.A. team a natural rival.
First, let's deal with priorities. If a franchise is going to move, Los Angeles should be first in line. The NFL has gone too long without having a franchise there. Going international is great, but football is an American game, and the league can't think about going elsewhere until fans in the second biggest U.S. city get football.
The second issue is expansion. I don't see the NFL expanding. The current 32-team, eight-division format works. It has the right mix of divisional rivalries. It allows for teams in divisions to play the same 14 teams, which creates better competitive balance. Going to more than 32 teams would hurt the product because it would stretch the talent pool.
Traveling overseas is tough. Now, the two teams that play in London annually get a bye week to allow their body clocks to adjust. Imagine eight teams traveling to London. It's hard enough for West Coast teams to adjust to East Coast games at 1 p.m. when they go on the road.
The West Coast teams have a long track record of having slow starts in early games on the East Coast. The London team would have a significant home-field advantage. Helping a London team win might help build the international brand, but things would work better in Mexico City.
There aren't enough teams west of the Mississippi anyway. You know the games in Mexico would sell out, and the fans would be wild about the NFL.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.