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Big League: Evaluating the NFL’s possible expansion options in the UK, Canada and Mexico

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As Drake famously said in the song “Big Rings” with Future, “I’ve got a really big league, and they need a few more teams.”

Okay, fine. Those aren’t the real lyrics, but some representatives across the NFL may have said those very words at some point in the last few years as the league has explored different means of expansion across numerous countries.

While some American fans would likely prefer internal expansion to places like Oklahoma City, or back to San Diego and St. Louis for ease of travel, others are feeling the itch to make the NFL a worldwide phenomenon with teams based in different countries.

With that in mind, it’s time to buckle your seatbelts as we take a trip around the world to evaluate the different options for the NFL to broaden their horizons.

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United Kingdom

This option seems to be the most obvious based on the foundation that’s already been created over the last 12 years with the league’s London games, and the obvious desire from fans across the pond.

Football fans have seen games played in London for more than a decade at this point, with all but three NFL teams having played in the country since the International Series’ inception in 2007. After this year’s slate of games, the Packers will be the odd man out in that league-wide group, with the Panthers and Texans in the fray for 2019.

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You can argue about the talent level of the games that get sent overseas, but there’s only one thing that really matters here: fans are selling out the stadiums no matter what games are being played.

ESPN reported in 2018 that the demand is high for the NFL’s London games, with the Seahawks-Raiders matchup serving as the perfect example. After the teams’ game last year was moved to Wembley Stadium due to the delay in opening of the Tottenham Hotspur’s new home, 20,000 extra tickets sold out at a rapid pace to set a record for the highest-attended NFL game in London.

That record didn’t last long, as the Eagles and Jaguars topped it two weeks later with 85,870 fans in attendance.

The league is hoping they can find similar success this year, with four games on the slate for 2019.

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Former NFL defensive back Jason Bell moved across the pond a few years ago to join the media scene in the U.K., and mentioned to The Swing of Things in August that there’s a desire for as much football as possible when it comes to the fans in London.

“When you go to the games here and you see every game sold out, you see every jersey represented, you don’t see that in the States,” Bell said. “You’ll see teams come out here that won’t sell out their stadium at home. It’s sold out here. The appetite is real.”

“It’s here, the NFL is here to stay,” Bell continued. “As much as the NFL is willing to give, they’re willing to consume.”

If the league has their way, that appetite could turn into something real in the very near future.

NFL executive vice president Mark Waller told ESPN in 2018 that having the league expand to London by 2022 was a “logical time frame from a business perspective” with the current collective bargaining agreement and media deals respectively expiring in 2020 and 2022.

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“The fact that [teams] 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 told ESPN.

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As the league starts to gauge interest from teams, they’re also gaining it from younger football players, as is evident by the newly-formed “NFL Academy.”

The program, introduced in London in May 2019 and off-and-running as of September, is “creating the future British stars of the NFL,” giving student-athletes the chance to continue their education while they train on the field and learn life lessons for when they’re off of it.

“They’re starting [the NFL Academy], and these kids can’t wait to sign up and play,” Bell said. “It’s amazing. Now, especially with video games, the same things happen with the premiership as far as in the States because all these kids are playing with these guys on video games, so they know all the stars. Juju Smith-Schuster came out here, Odell Beckham Jr. came out here, these kids went crazy. They completely lost their minds.”

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But, logistically, could those stars or any full team handle playing eight games in London and eight games in the United States, with varying lengths of time for road trips and longer stretches of time between home games? The league seems to think so, with the potential there to increase the amount of games played in London over the next few years as they continue to look at field conditions after consecutive weeks of play.

“We have tested and continue to test all the variables,” Waller told ESPN last year. “This year [2018], 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.”

Is the desire there? You bet it is. Can the stadium hold up with the increased amount of games? It appears so, and the league will find out more as the 2019 season continues. Will the rest of the teams in the league be okay with the move? It’s no different than going to London once a year like some teams are anyway, and most teams wouldn’t have to go more than once every few years with the current schedule formula.

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The real test, however, is this: Would players be willing to be based in London, traded to and from the United States, and excited about traveling all over the world if they land on this new team? Or, would the team have to be built up with players from the NFL Academy? Those are the questions that’ll have to be debated before any big moves are determined, but the U.K. provides the most intriguing option as far as foreign teams are concerned.

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Canada and Mexico 

The U.K. isn’t the only part of the world getting some international love, and no, we’re not talking about the rapper Pitbull. The NFL has also spread games both north and south of its home country, with the Raiders and Packers playing a preseason game in Canada this past August, and Mexico playing host to numerous scheduled games on the NFL season’s slate over the years.

Unfortunately, field conditions have played a major factor in both of the two countries’ struggles to gain any ground as it relates to expansion in the NFL.

The Raiders and Packers famously had to play on an 80-yard field in Week 3 of the 2019 preseason, much to Jon Gruden’s chagrin, as evidenced on “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Oakland Raiders.”

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“I’m sure the league office will consider cancelling kickoffs, moving the field to a 90-yard field,” Gruden joked.

In 2018, arguably the best game of the entire season, a 54-51 Week 11 matchup between the Chiefs and Rams, had to be moved to California due to poor field conditions down in Mexico.

Who knows what the game would’ve looked like south of the border, and, assuming everything stayed the same as far as the play on the field, how much leverage Mexico could’ve had over the NFL with a game like that under its belt?

Regardless, there were positives in each of those situations. Canada hosted an NFL game for the first time since 2013, even if it was on an 80-yard field this time around.

For Mexico, the league had enough good faith in the country and the situation to schedule a game at Estadio Azteca in 2019, despite the troubles in 2018, with the Chiefs and Chargers set to provide a marquee matchup for a new fanbase down south.

The Raiders also serve as another positive for the expansion situation as a whole, as they will have played a game in the United States, Canada and London by the time 2019 is over, potentially setting the tone for teams in both London and one of either Canada or Mexico.

While London is really the only city at the moment where expansion would work in the United Kingdom, there are a few options to choose from in these two countries.

Between Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg are just a few to consider in Canada, with the basis already there when you factor in the fans for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets in the NHL.

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Sure, you’ll likely run into some issues with the Canadian Football League if you try to expand up north, but some sort of deal could always be worked out if problems were to arise.

Mexico doesn’t have a ton to work with when it comes to those similar American fan bases across numerous leagues, but it has the experience of games played in Estadio Asteca already, with teams like the Patriots, Cardinals, 49ers, Raiders and Texans already on their resume.

“We have a tremendous, passionate fan base in Mexico and we know the atmosphere on game day will be outstanding,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release back in 2016.

The NFL would provide them with its first real entry into the Big Four, and could help them to get rolling in the direction of the MLB or the NBA, with the potential there for expansion, as well.

The bottom line?

If you add one team to the league, you’ll have to add another, and the NFL has plenty of cities that they can pick from if they decided to expand in the next 5-10 years.

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Sure, they could stick in the United States and add to their dominance at home. But, why not expand to where you’ve already gone, and increase your reach that much more by permanently placing a team in London and another in one of the other North American countries? The interest has already been showcased, and the wheels are already in motion for a city like London.

It’s a bold move, and won’t be an easy one to convince everyone to get behind, but it could be just the thing to keep this snowball rolling as the NFL continues to expand its footprint in the sports world.

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