During this week in which the United States celebrates its independence, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in the country we declared independence from 237 years ago.
Big Ben had his picture taken with his namesake clock in the background as part of a trip to London this week to promote the Steelers’ game against the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium on Sept. 29. The Steelers have played preseason games in other countries, but this will be their first game abroad that counts.
The NFL has played one regular-season game a year in London since 2007, and somehow it’s taken six years for the league to jump on the Big Ben angle.
The Steelers-Vikings game in Week 4 is the first of two NFL regular-season games in London in 2013. The Jacksonville Jaguars play the San Francisco 49ers there Oct. 27, and the Jags will be playing one game a year in London for the next four years.
Like an offense on a methodical, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust drive, the NFL is slowly but surely expanding its presence in London. The ultimate goal is a permanent franchise there.
Jason La Canfora, in a June 5 article on CBSSports.com, says it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” an NFL franchise moves to London.
Don’t do it, Roger Goodell.
One or two regular-season games a year in London is fine, but an NFL team in London is a bad idea.
Competitive balance is one of the main reasons the NFL has become the most popular sport in America. There’s a certain sense of equilibrium that has contributed to that competitive balance.
The 32-team league is made up of eight four-team divisions. The schedule format guarantees that every team meets each of the other 31 teams at least once every four years. Goodell actually had a good idea when he required division games to be scheduled in the last week of the regular season, reducing the risk of meaningless games.
But moving a team to London is not a good idea.
London would not get an expansion team. The NFL would export a current franchise to London, and the Jaguars seem to be the leading candidate.
So there still would be 32 teams in the NFL, but how can the league’s symmetry be maintained when an ocean separates one franchise from the other 31?
Let’s say the Jacksonville Jaguars become the London Jaguars. How does the NFL keep them in the AFC South with a straight face? It would make more geographic sense to move the Miami Dolphins to the AFC South and put the London Jaguars in the AFC East, because they’d be to the East all right.
The casualty of that plan would be the dissolution of the traditional rivalry between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. They’ve played each other twice a year every year since 1967. If they’re no longer in the same division there would be years they don’t play each other at all.
Imagine a season without a Steelers-Ravens game.
La Canfora’s article addresses some of the logistical hurdles that a London franchise would present.
The London team could play its stateside road games in two-week blocks and set up practice facilities in the U.S. to minimize the travel.
Likewise, visiting teams could fly to London early in the week and set up shop. The San Francisco 49ers have a camp in Youngstown, Ohio for their East Coast trips, according to La Canfora.
However, La Canfora doesn’t explain how this would all work during the playoffs.
Assuming again the London Jaguars are in the AFC East, let’s say the New York Jets fly out to London for their Week 17 game. Then let’s say the Jets make the playoffs and have to travel to San Diego for a wild-card game. Suppose they win that and have to fly back out to London for a divisional playoff game.
If the London Jaguars had a first-round bye, that would mean a team that’s taken two trans-Atlantic flights and two cross-country flights in 14 days plays a team that’s been home for three weeks.
How does that not put a team at a competitive disadvantage?
Would the London Jaguars be forced to stay in the United States throughout the playoffs even if they’re the top seed and have earned home-field advantage?
Would there be playoff games at neutral sites to alleviate the travel?
Those are the kinds of things that happen when you try to fix what’s not broken.
If the NFL really wants to expand its global reach, how about sending every team (not just the Steelers) to London for one game per season instead of basing one team there?
That way, London would get a game almost every week.
If teams are required to play one Thursday game per season, why not one London game?
Every team would deal with the inconvenience of one Thursday game and one trip to London, so the playing field would remain level.
If London fans really thirst for more NFL football (and I’m not sure they do), 16 NFL games a year at Wembley Stadium would be a good way to satisfy them.
This is something that could work to the Steelers’ advantage.
The Steelers’ London game against the Vikings is considered a “road” game. But who is the NFL kidding?
Terrible Towels take over visiting stadiums in the United States. There’s no reason to think that will be any different in London.
While the Steelers don’t have to sacrifice a home date, they essentially play an extra game in a “home” environment.
The NFL doesn’t make pillar franchises like the Steelers play just seven games in front of their home fans for the sake of a game in London. The New England Patriots played “road” games there against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009 and the St. Louis Rams in 2012. The New York Giants were technically the visitors when they played the Miami Dolphins there in 2007.
If all 32 teams played an annual game in London, the Steelers probably would have to give up a game at Heinz Field every other year. If that’s what it takes to spare the NFL the folly of a team in jolly old England, so be it.
To spare teams a late-season flight to London while they’re fighting for a playoff berth, the last London game could be in Week 14 or 15. To ensure 16 London games, there could be one or two doubleheaders earlier in the season.
Perhaps there would be a London game on a Saturday and a Sunday one weekend. Or maybe even a 9:30 a.m. Sunday game (2:30 p.m. over there) followed by a 1 p.m. game. That would breach the tradition of football Sundays starting at 1 p.m. on the East Coast, but it’s better than having the Steelers play the London Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in an AFC divisional playoff game.
Heck, give London a Super Bowl, too. The Super Bowl has become a homegrown American holiday. As blasphemous as it would be for this holiday’s showcase event to be played in another country, it’s better than putting a team in that country and spoiling the formula that has made the NFL so successful.