Multiple Signs Point to NFL Expansion, Plans To Create an ‘International Division’ Despite Hurdles

The NFL has focused on expanding its presence internationally for quite some time, but could that effort reach new levels in the not-so-distant future?

In October, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell first mentioned to a crowd in London that he thought that there could be two franchises in the city and potentially a European division, with the implied possibility of teams in Germany hosting the other two teams in such a setup.

Though there has been talk for years about the possibility of NFL expansion into other countries in the form of new franchises or relocation, the steam is building up.

NFL Expansion Into a European Division Seems Inevitable

That small bit of news in October didn’t get much traction until much later when an anonymous owner shared their thoughts with A.J. Perez from Front Office Sports, saying, “We don’t know if it’s going to happen in two years, five years, or whenever, but there’s going to be an international division.”

The strength of that inevitability claim is worth noting — the NFL has clearly had its sights set on an international franchise or series of international franchises for some time, and it may be ramping up efforts.

In the short term, this makes some degree of sense. Any new franchisee would pay a franchise fee to the rest of the owners in the league, immediately infusing ownership with new cash.

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Depending on the language of the salary cap structure in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that money might not even need to be split up with the players in the form of an increased salary cap.

It also allows Goodell, who has been excellent at negotiating media rights deals, to negotiate a new round of deals with international broadcast partners — deals that are much more enticing given the new markets the NFL would be able to penetrate and the first mover advantage for any broadcast stations that want to make themselves the home for their local NFL team.

This should more than offset the concerns owners might have about having to split the revenue-sharing pot with four new franchises.

Of course, all of this can only be true if the NFL produces a good product out of the teams established abroad. And that presents a series of challenges.

Logistics Make NFL International Expansion a Problem, Even if a Division Helps

The logistical challenges of international travel for NFL teams are staggering. While the NFL and general advances in technology have resolved many of these problems, NFL teams still find themselves needing every minute of planning available to them in the months leading up to an international game in order to plan their travel.

An interview conducted six years ago with Joe Bussell, a former Special Events and Teams Operations Manager for an NFL team, revealed the depths to which NFL teams are forced to prepare for international games, often finding themselves packing replicas of their team kitchens, meeting rooms, office supply rooms and more, expanding their travel team from about 130 personnel to over twice that number.

“We sent professional copiers to our hotels in London,” Bussell explained, “because the coaches used both tablets and paper in binders for playbooks. Because we sent U.S. copiers, we had to send U.S.-sized paper — and plenty of it — because the conversion from standard to metric measurements meant different paper sizes. Same for laminators and sheets.”

And though electronics have become much better in recent years at internally converting changes in voltage across electrical grids, teams still need to be careful to bring voltage converters so that European power standards — 230 volt systems — don’t fry the devices that don’t have voltage converters built into them.

NFL teams have contacts in every NFL city in order to make sure emergencies can get handled, and those will have to be established on a more permanent and enduring basis in London and any other European city hosting NFL games.

Those emergencies can range from finding parts to broken machines — often difficult enough but made even more difficult given the different types of devices available abroad — to emergency printing, telecom, audiovisual, storage, or hosting services.

For example, the Seattle Seahawks conduct all their practices in Seattle before an away game to Arizona, so there aren’t too many things that they would need in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.

But they will still conduct a team meeting the night before the game in a hotel ballroom. If that ballroom springs a leak, they will have alternate options available to them for a meeting location.

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That would need to be true for every team in London — but so too for things like film rooms, practices, and more, depending on how long teams will be asked to stay there. If the Minnesota Vikings’ home outdoor practice field floods, they will simply move practice indoors. But if they practice abroad, they will need to make sure that they have an alternate practice field.

That would be true for every game hosted by four European teams. And though scale would likely make that problem easier to solve — dedicated practice facilities for away teams with alternate routes planned and so on — it’s still worth consideration and ramps up the cost to the NFL to make this work.

Not only that, but other logistical issues unrelated to equipment and on-the-ground support would crop up. Every player would need to make sure that they have their passport updated and ready to go before the season.

For an individual team traveling to London, this limits their ability to acquire players less than six weeks before a game. As the league moves to creating a division, it’s likely that every player would apply for a passport as a matter of course. Travel is already complicated enough for NFL teams, who strictly manage their player’s nutrition plans, sleep schedules, and more for games across the country.

Games on the other side of the world require more, as players quickly become dissatisfied with unfamiliarity. That’s why teams bring food over instead of trusting the local cuisine. It’s not that the food isn’t good, but it’s unfamiliar.

With a whole division, there are ways around problems. In addition to having something like dedicated away team practice facilities, the NFL could schedule division opponents for consecutive away games, allowing them to stay in one place for a month instead of traveling back and forth.

The division prospect also reduces some of the international travel necessary simply because six of the 17 games a London-based team would play would be in Europe (two against each of three divisional opponents).

But logistical problems only exacerbate the real problem: talent.

NFL International Expansion Has a Talent Problem

The NFL creating an international division could happen through several means, but the two most likely are expanding by four teams (either all at once or on a staggered, accelerated timeframe) or by expanding by two and relocating two existing franchises.

The NFL has never truly expanded by more than two teams at a time. The last time more than two teams joined the NFL in a non-merger scenario was 1933, but one of those three teams functionally already existed — the Philadelphia Eagles, taking over for the Frankford Yellow Jackets.

As the USFL, AAF, and XFL have demonstrated, the available pool of football talent isn’t enough to sustain quality football for additional teams. That’s not to say those minor leagues represent the “next-best” players (the backups on an NFL team do that), but they showcase how difficult it is to field some positions.

The gap between a mid-level starting quarterback in the NFL and the best quarterback in the XFL is enormous. So too at the offensive line positions. While some positions like wide receiver, cornerback, and defensive line do have smaller skill gaps, the problem remains clear at the most important positions.

This isn’t a scenario similar to the WNBA, where very thin margins result in extremely talented players finding themselves cut with nowhere to go. The NFL does not have enough quarterbacks or offensive linemen as it is, and spreading the talent pool out among two to four other teams could exacerbate the problem.

The number of FBS collegiate programs has not changed substantially over time. Since 2010, there have been 11 new programs brought into the FBS, and even fewer have turned into talent pools for the NFL draft.

This could be catastrophic to the NFL product and possibly even dangerous. Players without the requisite size, speed, strength, or awareness to keep up with the Aaron Donalds and Von Millers of the NFL world might be at increased risk of injury.

And finding talent is just one problem. Convincing that talent to play across the pond is another one entirely. Players would be asked to uproot their families to play in a new country while living in a foreign environment with different customs, culture, language (in Germany), food, and so on.

And the NFL would have to solve a tax disadvantage, too. A player earning a $14 million base salary would earn a game check of about $825,000 and be taxed at an effective tax rate of 13 percent or so, meaning his take-home pay would be $718,000 for that game.

In London, with an effective tax rate of nearly 44 percent, the take-home pay for that game would be about $460,000. And it’s not as if the player benefits in terms of government services in the same way either — the team will be providing the majority of his health care, and he won’t likely stay in England long enough to qualify for State Pension.

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Though this could be resolved with salary cap mechanisms or an after-the-fact separate compensation pool for players whose gameday incomes are impacted by international travel, it still remains a potential barrier among a long list of issues preventing players from wanting to sign with those teams.

Players buy into the idea that they could be traded at a moment’s notice to another team — that’s just part of the business. But current travel occurs within the United States, and the culture change between locations is relatively minor compared to abroad.

The tax burden generally operates within a narrow range of outcomes, and, in the United States, many states offset low income taxes with higher property and consumption taxes — meaning there’s not much of an effective difference across teams anyway (unless a player chooses to live outside of the state).

Playing internationally would be a big enough change that the player’s union would likely object to this kind of expansion, which might result in a protracted battle between labor and ownership. Forcing players to play in another state is one thing, but another country is another entirely.

The CBA was constructed with the understanding that player contracts were tradeable assets that could relocate a player from Washington state to Washington D.C. but not with the understanding that a player might be relocated from New England to Old England.

Even if the NFLPA loses that battle and players are forced to play in London, Munich, or wherever an international team is stationed, it will be difficult to retain or attract free agents.

The NFL’s deal with DAZN, which operates their international GamePass service and broadcasts in Canada, Germany, and Japan, is worth $100 million per year. Their deal with Amazon, which streams Thursday Night Football, is ten times that. The ability to turn their international broadcast rights into a real cash cow makes this move likely inevitable.

But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

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