Could the NFL put an entire division in Europe?

Picture this: It’s a Sunday afternoon in 2038, and you’re settling in for an afternoon of football. The London Jaguars and the Berlin Buccaneers are playing with the AFC International divisional title at stake. Mexico City, led by future Hall of Famer Bryce Young – remember when there were pre-draft questions about him? – has just about locked up the NFC Americas division, but a crucial Game 18 looms with ever-dangerous Rio de Janeiro. (Aaron Rodgers still hasn’t decided where he’ll play next season, but that’s a different story.)

Sure, it’s far-fetched. (Well, except for the Rodgers part.) But the NFL of the next 20 years is likely to look very different from the NFL of today. What seems unthinkable today is the to-do list of tomorrow. A 40-team NFL … 18-game seasons … entire divisions based overseas … it’s not necessarily probable, but it’s also not unthinkable, is it?

The NFL has had an eye on the European market — and the lucrative international TV market — for years; the league has played at least one game outside American borders every year since the 2007 season, with the exception of 2020. Since 2013, multiple games have taken place on foreign soil, with six played last year and five scheduled for this year. Put it this way: There’s a reason the NFL is staging games in England, Germany and Mexico rather than Memphis, St. Louis and San Antonio.

The endgame here could be something more than just a single team setting up shop in Europe. Front Office Sports reports that an unnamed owner indicated that there are already much bigger plans in the works. "We don't know if it's going to happen in two years, five years, or whenever," the owner said, "but there's going to be an international division."

Let's take that wildly optimistic statement at face value and play it out. How would such a drastic change to the NFL's America-centric business model work? Expansion, baby, expansion. Pro Football Talk hypothesizes a scenario where two existing teams and two expansion teams set up permanent residence in Europe. There are already two NFL-ready stadiums in London – Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur – and at least one in Germany, with recent upgrades to stadiums in Paris and Rome putting them in the (purely hypothetical) mix as well.

“I think what we are focused on is building capacity so if there were that opportunity — whether a club wanted to consider relocation or potentially looking at expansion — we are in that mode,” NFL Executive VP of club business, international, & league events Peter O’Reilly told Front Office Sports. ”In London, where we’ve been for a long time, and now in Germany, we’re making sure we’ve got the stadium partners, the governmental partners, and the fan support to sustain that possibility.”

From a purely logistical perspective, multiple teams on-continent at once is a solid idea: each team could knock off a third of its schedule without even leaving the continent. Flying time between, say, London and Munich is less than the flying time between Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Combine that with three lengthy “road” (really, transoceanic) trips – throw in a Thursday game on one end to shorten the overall length – plus a U.S.-based home-away-from-home, and the schedule-making aspect of a European expansion starts to become a little more manageable.

That’s the glorious, world-encompassing dream. The reality hits a little harder, starting with the basic biological effects of international travel. Ever tried to work while jet-lagged? Now imagine trying to elude a 300-pound lineman with a head that’s four time zones away. Travel from Seattle to Boston is nothing compared to travel from Seattle to Europe. (On the plus side, analytics experts who can calculate the effects of travel on a body – and sleep experts who can counsel teams on how to prepare their players – stand to make bank if the NFL expands to Europe.)

Placing an American team in Europe effectively guarantees that the entire team will spend seven months of the year as a rootless vagabond, bouncing from home base to visiting stadium to home base. It would be tough on the families of players, coaches, team officials, everyone involved. Yes, that’s why they make the big bucks — but big bucks are also available stateside, too. European teams will need to pay a premium to attract players.

The fluctuating exchange rate of the dollar, the tax implications of being an American living abroad, the European cost of living, the separation from friends and family, the sheer culture shock of living overseas – all these are real-world concerns that come into play when considering a transatlantic team. And while many of those concerns could be addressed simply by freeing up more cash by raising the salary cap for European teams, that would require buy-in of the league’s domestic owners – all of whom would be paying more in travel costs and wear-and-tear as well.

Then there’s the simplest of questions: Just how popular is the NFL outside America, really? The NBA and MLB travel well, as evidenced by the NBA’s worldwide footprint and the resounding international success of the recent World Baseball Classic. But football? That most American of sports? Does that translate effectively to European sensibilities? Would it be popular for more than just a one-off annual visit?

The NFL’s International Series games are always a huge hit at the gate. Seeing the Seattle Seahawks or the Green Bay Packers in a soccer stadium once a year is a mark-the-calendar experience, whether the stands are filled with European fans or expatriate Americans. But how about a meaningless late-November game against the Browns or Lions?

Plus, there’s always the question of where exactly these teams will come from. Would the NFL expand by more than two teams? If not, which teams – well, besides the Jaguars – are the likeliest candidates to move? (Hint: Start with which teams haven’t yet secured multibillion-dollar stadiums. Watch your backs, Panthers and Titans fans.)

Expanding the number of teams in the league requires realigning divisions, too, and perhaps adding more than two franchises down the road. Some NFL observers have speculated that the league's ultimate goal is 40 teams – eight divisions of five teams apiece – which, to our current way of thinking, is unimaginably large and unwieldy. To our current way of thinking.

As big as the NFL’s dreams are, the obstacles may be even larger. But if there’s any institution that can take on the laws of physics, biology and time itself, it’s the NFL. This ought to be fun to watch.

Comments on this article