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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Ramming Them Down Our Throats...

Ok. I need to put some disclaimers at the start of this piece, otherwise what I’m going to say might be taken in a “haters gonna hate” kind of way.

1.    I am a Rams fan living in the UK
2.    I have never seen the Rams play in person
3.    I have been to 3 of the 5 International Series games at Wembley. I couldn’t get tickets for the first, and I didn’t want tickets for the last.

The decision of the NFL to sign a deal with the Rams to send them to Wembley for a home game in each of the next 3 seasons is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. See why I needed the disclaimers?

My own view of the Saints vs Chargers game
The International Series itself is a fantastic venture by the NFL. With the end of NFL Europe in 2007, the league needed a way to keep foreign fans interested, as well as expanding the fanbase to truly make the sport a global phenomenon. Hosting a regular season game every year at Wembley Stadium in London, UK has been the perfect way to do this. Here in the UK, American Football is really in vogue, going through a revolution that exceeds the interest of the game over here in the 80s, and bringing it into the general public’s knowledge rather than just hardened sports fans. With the interest growing here, and still very high in hotbeds like Germany, the International Series games have almost all sold out within hours and days of tickets going on sale, with fans travelling from all over Europe to London to see the game. The first 4 games attracted sell-outs of over 81,000 people, and some unlucky fans (like me in 2007) unable to get tickets despite being on the Register of Interest from the first second the signup process opened. Although the level of football has been variable (from a snooze-fest between the eventual Superbowl winning Giants and the Dolphins in 2007, to a shootout that went down to the wire between the Chargers and Saints a year later, and a one-sided destruction of the Buccaneers by the Patriots in 09), fans have always flocked to the game no matter who was playing, simply because it was there. However, after 4 years, expectations have changed. The novelty of there being a game in London has evolved in to a slightly more snobbish opinion that unless the game is a decent matchup, what’s the point in going? Although until very recently there was no guarantee that there would be a game in London the next year, there was always the assumption that there would be, and there was no point wasting your money on expensive tickets (cheapest available in 2011 was £55 [$85]) for a game this year that you wouldn’t really be that interested in seeing if it was free and on TV. The most recent game, between the Bears and Bucs, suffered from this mentality, with attendance dropping to just over 76,000. Still hardly an empty stadium, but a significant drop when it’s the only game in the continent for 12 months. Personally, the reason I didn’t want to go was the Buccaneers. Not that I hate them or anything, but I’ve seen them play before (in 2009), and with 23 other teams to choose from that HADN’T been to the UK to that point, it was a disappointing selection.

Broncos-49ers in 2010
It’s for this reason that the decision to send the Rams over here for 3 years in a row is completely ridiculous. I will probably go to all 3 games, no matter who the Rams are playing, and I can imagine a lot of other Rams fans in the UK will do the same. But that’s not a lot of people. Being consistently the worst team in the league over the past 5 years doesn’t do a lot to grow yourself a fanbase outside your home city. Fortunately for 2012, the Patriots are one of the best supported teams in England, so their following, and possibly being reigning Superbowl champions at that point, should stop the attendance being a complete embarrassment. For neutral fans, even if they didn’t want to go to see the Rams, I don’t think they could begrudge them having one game in Wembley. Every team should get a shot at playing over here if they want to. But announcing this 3 year deal is a step too far. It basically alienates all NFC fans, who are now almost guaranteed to not see their team over here until 2015 at the earliest. It also alienates neutrals, who might have gone to see all 3 games if the matchups were constantly changing, but will now rely on the Rams opponents to entice them enough to want to shell out. It’s worth noting just how bad the Rams have been in this equation too. For less devoted football fans deciding whether to go, the prospect of seeing a team that’s gone 15-65 over the last 5 years could well be a deciding factor in not going.

But all this stuff can’t be news to the NFL. As much as I’d like to claim it’s not true, there are probably at least a couple of people in the league offices that are smarter than me and worked this out before the deal was signed. So why did the league strike this deal? And for that matter, why did the Rams agree to it too? I can think of a few reasons that might explain it, and might make this decision less ridiculous.

·         There is going to be more than 1 regular season game played in Europe each season – This would explain why the league doesn’t seem concerned that they’re stopping other teams from coming to the UK with this decision, as well as alienating a lot of fans by not sending their team. The possibility of a second game in the UK has been brought up before, and has been far from ruled out. For my money, it would be a great idea, but not another game at Wembley. A second Wembley game would basically make everyone who wants to go to a game choose which one they want to go to, and the more attractive fixture will get sold out and the lesser one will have a horrible attendance. The smart move would be to host a game in a different location, top choices being, in order of sensibility: Germany, Ireland, somewhere else in mainland Europe, Scotland, Wales. The fanbase in Germany is still huge from NFL Europe days, and a fixture there would have the same kind of buzz that the first games at Wembley did when the Series started. Ireland would be another good choice, particularly with Steelers owner Dan Rooney now being US Ambassador to Ireland, and with the Notre Dame-Navy rivalry game already being scheduled for Dublin in 2012. Hosting another fixture in Europe alongside the Rams games will avoid fans being alienated by only being offered the Rams for the foreseeable future, as well as beginning the league’s expansion across Europe rather than just in one central location.

·         The NFL wants to test the viability of an English Franchise – This kind of goes without saying. The eventual goal of the NFL seems to be to become truly global, and the only way to do this will be to have teams based outside the USA. The Bills moving to Toronto seems a likely step to start this, but a London franchise has certainly been presented as a future possibility. Sending one team here for 3 years in a row should give the NFL an indication of how well a team would be accepted by local fans, and if the number of Rams fans skyrockets due to this series then it might be a tick in the box of the London Franchises. The problem is it’s not a fair test. The 3 year investment to London by the Rams is no more than that, a 3 year investment, and doesn’t give people a long term incentive to follow the team. Having no “local” team here, fans have no geographical incentive to follow one franchise or another, and have other reasons for picking a team. Putting a team in the UK would instantly give new fans to the NFL an automatic decision of who to follow, and would probably make a number of established fans follow them as at very least their second team. This 3 year deal will certainly not make current NFL fans support the Rams, even if a few new fans do get drawn in (although let’s be honest, new fans in 2012 that watch the game are slightly more likely to end up following the Patriots).

·         The Rams are looking to make some money from UK fans – This one didn’t take much thought. When was the last time the Edward Jones Dome had an attendance of over 75,000? In 2011 the average home attendance was 56,394, a lowly 31st in the league.

·         The Rams are moving (probably to LA) – Is it a coincidence that this contract is the same length as the remaining lease on the Edward Jones Dome? I doubt it. The fact is, for a team to move to LA, they need to make a public commitment to the move before the stadium construction can actually begin, and this would precede their relocation by 2-3 years. Doing this will spell death for the franchise that comes out as “On the Move” in their current marketplace, so having a few fixtures already penned in that will attract large crowds (even if you have to travel 3000 miles to get them) would be a welcome distraction from the silence of your own home field. The Rams are a natural choice for moving to LA, having been based there before and hence still a large fan-base, having an expiring stadium contract in their current location, and being so terrible recently that a change of scenery would seem justified. There is an argument that says the Rams are making a power play with the city of St Louis with this deal. By showing how big a hit the St Louis economy will take by losing just 1 regular season game a year, it might scare the powers that be into funding a new stadium in the Lou so as not to lose the team permanently. The trouble with this theory is that the NFL won’t allow the St Louis marketplace to go without a team for long. Even if the Rams did up-sticks, I suspect that before they’d even seen out their notice, another team (read Jacksonville Jaguars) would be lining up to backfill the area. The fact that Shahid Kahn tried to buy the Rams previously, and now owns the Jags, makes it even more likely that this move would be pursued by at least one party.

If one/some/all of these reasons are true, then it might just about be justifiable to have signed this contract. Either way, I know the majority of NFL fans in the UK will ridicule it (with good reason), but I’ll still be there at all 3 games wearing my Dickerson Throwback #29. Possibly all by myself...

-      Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
-      The Pulling Linemen

1 comment:

  1. All interesting and fair points but I think it's fair to say that the Rams have the prospect of getting a lot better in the next few years, with a few high draft picks, a supposedly franchise Quarterback and a new (sort of) marquee coach. If the Rams started to get competitive in an inconsistent division, they might start to draw in larger chunks of UK fans.