LONDON -- Whenever the NFL International Series rolls into town, the same question always arises: Is it a matter of when or if London will get a franchise?
The question is as inevitable as the plethora of jerseys worn by gridiron aficionados at the matches, or the smell of barbecues and beers at the tailgates. But there is a growing feeling a potential franchise is nearer than ever to becoming reality.
So what are the key hurdles that remain, and how would it all work?
When could a franchise start in London?
There is growing optimism within NFL circles that there could be a London-based franchise by 2022. NFL executive vice president Mark Waller told ESPN that was a "logical time frame from a business perspective" as the current collective bargaining agreement and media deals expire in 2020 and 2022, respectively. Waller pointed to how 29 of the 32 franchises have played in London since the International Series began in 2007, and they have seen for themselves "the passion, the size, scale and enthusiasm for the sport".
"The fact that they can see it, touch it, play it, know that works, know they can travel back and be competitive in their seasons [the four winning teams in London in 2017 all reached the playoffs], I think we're closer than ever," Waller continued. "We have tested and continue to test all the variables. This year, playing three games [on successive Sundays] at Wembley has tested the field, tested the ability to sell out on consecutive weekends, which is how we'd have to schedule any franchise based here. I think we're in good shape."
Such has been the demand, when the opening of Tottenham Hotspur's stadium was delayed and the Seahawks-Raiders game was moved to Wembley, that the 20,000 extra tickets sold out in a blink of an eye and it became the highest-attended London game. That record was then broken on Sunday for the Eagles-Jaguars match played in front of 85,870 fans. Only Dallas has hosted games with greater attendances in the NFL this season.
The Tottenham stadium delay turned a potential setback into a feather in the cap for the NFL in the U.K., a defining moment in this 12th season of games in London. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, hailed the "extraordinary" political support for the venture, with London mayor Sadiq Khan a vociferous supporter of the league's international expansion.
While Khan would love a Super Bowl to come to London, time zone complexities make this highly unlikely. Instead, the focus from the league is firmly toward testing all the variables involved in having a franchise overseas. The NFL confirmed on Monday that the 2019 season will see four games staged in London, as was the case in 2017. It is all a movement toward a time where London hosts eight regular-season games, the same as a franchise would have to stage each season.
How would a franchise work?
A London franchise would likely play its games in blocks, with a batch of home matches before then going on the road and vice versa. This would limit the number of transatlantic trips.
Waller believes a franchise would likely have a hub of operations in the U.S. as well as in London. "That would enable us to ensure the team, when it was in the States playing its games there, would have a centre of operations for the whole season to be able to work on player roster, recruitment and replenishment," he said.
As for where a London franchise would be based, there was a surprise twist in recent weeks when Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan pulled out of a bid to purchase Wembley Stadium. Such had been the backlash toward the proposal in the U.K., with the Football Association bearing the brunt of it for contemplating selling what many see as a prized asset to the game of soccer in England.
That news broke while ESPN was interviewing Waller, and there was little doubt that it was a blow to the NFL as well as Khan. Waller declined to comment but was clearly surprised.
It means Tottenham's stadium is the clear front-runner to become the primary venue for a future franchise. Their 62,062-capacity ground has a retractable pitch, and it was built with the NFL in mind, including two vast changing rooms to house the teams. Despite the delays this year and the relocation of the Raiders-Seahawks game, the NFL confirmed on Monday that it will host two matches as of next year.
Tottenham's dedication to the NFL saw them include merchandise in the stadium's new megastore, with jerseys from the various franchises and other paraphernalia on sale. They have gone all in.
"Clearly we wouldn't both be putting all this into this stadium if there wasn't the prospect of one day a team eventually coming to London," Levy told ESPN in 2016. "But there are certainly no guarantees that A) a team comes to London, and B) they have to use our stadium. I think we're all putting the effort in in the hopes that they will do it."
What are the remaining roadblocks?
With the NFL unlikely to expand anytime soon beyond 32 franchises, it is going to need one owner to take the plunge and embrace the risk of relocation.
But there are other logistical difficulties, and any London-based franchise would have to be factored into the new CBA.
"It would be a significant change in the working conditions in one of our teams, so that would require agreement with our players' union," Waller said.
The NFL are in discussions with the U.K. government around economic and tax issues and these would have to be factored into the salary cap. Brexit is actually seen as making a franchise's existence easier in London as it removes certain legal hurdles, whereas there could have been issues with the revenue-sharing model and draft system if the U.K. remained in the European Union beyond March 2019.
"It'll take time to iron out the complexities of a specific set of arrangements for one team and ensure that team is well treated but not competitively advantaged versus the other 31," Waller said. "It's not a straight-forward proposition but it ultimately should be doable."
Goodell is also concerned by potential playoff logistics. "You can't really plan for that," Goodell said. "So we could probably work the schedule in a fair way during the season, but when you get to the postseason it could be unfair to a team -- if Seattle had to come over here for a playoff game -- that's a tough one. So we've got to find an answer to that."
The NFLPA, the players' association, will have a significant voice in the discussions. ESPN spoke to a number of players back in 2013 on whether they would play for a London-based franchise, and the majority were reluctant. Former Eagles and Colts linebacker Trent Cole said the franchise would have to "go get some rugby players," while their cornerback Cary Williams advised the NFL to "stay in America, man".
This season, at least publicly, coaches and players have been positive about their experiences in London, save for perhaps the four Jaguars players who were arrested prior to their game against the Eagles. But whether that sentiment holds behind closed doors when CBA discussions commence between the NFL and NFLPA will be the acid test for a London franchise.
The travel is also a sizeable problem, even for players who are not contracted to a London franchise. The current longest journey within the NFL is the five-and-a-half hours it takes the Seahawks to get to Miami to play the Dolphins. Seattle's trip to London this year, however, saw them cross eight time zones.
For their part, the Los Angeles Chargers negated this sensibly for their match this year by playing the Browns, then training in Cleveland and flying on to London. They then defeated the Tennessee Titans at Wembley. But not every team scheduled to play in London would necessarily have the chance to play on the east coast the week prior, nor might they be comfortable with two road games in succession, either.
Last year, after the Baltimore Ravens suffered a 44-7 loss in London, their coach John Harbaugh said he had no plans "on going over there anytime soon to play again". This year, Melvin Gordon's hamstrings tightened up on the flight from Cleveland to London, he injured himself in Friday practice and then missed the Chargers' game at Wembley against the Tennessee Titans. When star players are missing out, it becomes a huge question mark for teams, players and the league.
Would fans support a franchise?
The NFL is growing in popularity, year-on-year. The league itself puts the U.K. fan base at just over 13 million, including 2.8m fans described as "avid", while 47,000 snapped up season tickets for the three matches this year. Participation levels are currently at 40,000 and 23m watched U.K. television coverage of the 2016 season, according to the most recently available figures.
But a franchise is a different proposition. There was widespread support for a London franchise from fans at the games at Wembley when ESPN spoke with them, but it would take some convincing for them to ditch their current NFL allegiances and support a London team instead. Even the designated home teams in London this season have had less vocal support than the road teams, with Seahawks and Eagles fans clearly outnumbering Raiders and Jaguars backers respectively.
But money talks and the demand in London is there with room to spare. StubHub, the online ticket exchange company, revealed the Eagles-Jaguars game was the "number one most in-demand NFL game globally" on their website. It has also seen demand for tickets increase by 333% in five years, while buyers from 42 different countries purchased tickets for this year's three games.
What are the next steps?
The NFL will continue to monitor the interest and work on the logistics around a potential franchise. But there will also be noises from Mexico City for a team to be based there: the Week 11 match between the Chiefs and Rams, one of the marquee games of the regular season, will take place on Nov. 19 in the 87,000-capacity Estadio Azteca.
Logistically, Mexico City would make more sense than bringing a team to the U.K., and last season's attendance of 77,357 for the Patriots-Raiders match proves the demand is there.
But London has accepted every challenge thrown at it and interest continues to grow.
The CBA will be key, as are the media rights with renewals due in the U.K. in 2019 and the U.S. in 2022. The league will keep a close eye on Tottenham's new stadium and other sub-plots, such as a renewed bid for Wembley by Shad Khan and the appetite for the Chargers in Los Angeles. All the while, nothing will be taken for granted in London.
"I think we have to continue working hard to grow the popularity and fan base," Waller said. "It's not a case of waiting until 2022. This is a great sports market with a lot of great sports options for fans. We need to make sure we stay present and excellent and execute everything really well and give fans what they want."