A Beautiful Game
The game of (American) football may be one of the most inscrutable popular pastimes ever devised. Unlike other games, such as baseball or cricket, which test athletes’ finesse and timing, or like basketball or (association) football, which are mainly contests of stamina, American football is subject to chaos like few other sports. In some ways, it’s the purest real-world realization of the concept behind J.K. Rowling’s wizard’s chess.
For football teams playing at a high level, each play is a match of wits between the offensive and defensive coordinators. Both rely on schemes designed to create and take advantage of mismatches, and for both — this is important — the scheme has to be developed around the available talent. (This is of course true in any sport, but even more so in a sport as complex as football, where, say, a single blown coverage assignment results in a sack.)
This is not to say the sport is easy on its players. In fact, part of its draw is its strange combination of finesse and brutality, of beautifully executed plays like deep throws contrasted with setbacks like sacks. It is, in essence, life in 60 minutes on a field.
And a huge part of that is the need to cooperate in football. In most goal sports — like basketball or association football or hockey — giving the ball (or puck) to the most athletically gifted talent on your team is usually a good way to win games. The Lakers were the most dominant team of the early 2000s because they had Kobe Bryant. (Traitor.) The Bulls were the mid-90s’ most dominant team because they had Michael Jordan. Wherever Wilt the Stilt went, his team was dominant. And so on.
Quarterbacks — football teams’ offensive leaders — are, by contrast, not necessarily the most athletically dominant person on the field. In fact, player roles are so varied that it’s hard to say who, exactly, the most athletically dominant person on the field is. Players like Brian Dawkins or Warren Sapp, who set themselves apart by their athletic dominance even for their positions, are at least as rare to come by as their counterparts in other professional sports. Instead, quarterbacks exert leadership by being intellectually dominant — the most skilled person on the field.
The best quarterbacks have to absorb, analyze, evaluate, and act on a tremendous amount of information, all in a jaw-droppingly short time. They have to communicate the play they’re supposed to be running from their coaches to their teammates. They have to read the opposing defense and adjust as they see fit. Sometimes, they’ll even change the play at the line of scrimmage — Peyton Manning excelled at this kind of cerebral quarterbacking. And they have to do all of this in the half-minute or so allotted between plays.
Stereotypes aside, it’s not at all surprising that football is becoming an increasingly international sport. For all that soccer styles itself the beautiful game, there is something truly beautiful in the way a football game is play — something truly beautiful in the way, any given game day, an athletically inferior team can dominate an athletically superior one, through smart coaching and smart play.
Outside the US (and Canada)
The NFL is largely saturated in its core markets. Theoretically, any 2-million-man metropolis can support an NFL team, and most of them have one. The only place the NFL can go, therefore, to expand its product and its brand is out of the US.
Canada has the CFL. There was a time, a while ago, when the CFL ran an American division that largely concentrated on those media markets the NFL ignores — cities like Memphis, Salt Lake, and Las Vegas. So, if not Canada, where else?
The answer has, increasingly, been London. It seems like two minor NFL teams play in London any given week. Wembley is regularly sold out for these affairs. (They’ve also been looking at Mexico City.)
The problem with this, however, is that — it’s London. There’s a 6-hour time difference between there and anything on the East Coast, a significant logistical hurdle. Mexico City represents a natural place for the NFL to begin franchising because games between “Aztecs” and NFC/AFC West teams on a regular schedule are feasible. The solution to this quandary is almost certainly a British league of some kind.
British athletics have long operated under promotion and relegation — good teams rise to the top while bad ones sink down. It’s an effective system for managing parity (for the most part) while allowing managers to dream title dreams.
This is, in all likelihood, unworkable for a British American football league, however. There are few cities that can profitably support such a team to begin with; a deeper problem is that the support infrastructure (layers and layers of progressively more minor leagues) isn’t remotely as extensive for American football.
In fact, there are just three conurbations with more than two million people in the British Isles: London, Manchester, and Birmingham. If we’re generous and ask about urban areas with more than one million, there are just three more: Dublin (actually just shy of 2m), Leeds — yes, Leeds — and Glasgow. That’s six cities.
Let’s take a look at the other end. An eight-team league would have optimal scheduling: the league is split into two 4-team divisions, playing division rivals twice, the other division once, and an alternating slate with one of the NFL divisions (4) teams for a 12-game schedule. The division winners would then play each other for the championship.
So we can put two teams in London — of opposite divisions, of course — and then one each in Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Leeds, Glasgow, and … somewhere else. (Liverpool? Belfast?)
There is a subtle beauty in this system. First of all, eight teams is probably the smallest you can field to maintain a competitive league (at least, in American football). Second, you guarantee that each team plays an NFL team twice at home each season. This serves two roles — two games that are guaranteed sellouts for every BFL team every season (c’mon, a mediocre AFC South divisional game sold Wembley out this year), and secondly, a degree of legitimacy for the expansion teams (because they are given the opportunity to win against NFL teams). It’s an excellent setup for converting known intermittent popularity into permanent new fanbases.
It’s also an expandable system. Is the BFL entrenched and profitable? Perfect, let’s launch the same program in France — Italy — the Iberian peninsula — greater Germany — and so on. Something similar can be applied in Latin America and the Far East. Over time, the Super Bowl simply becomes the oldest of a set of regional championships and a dedicated world championship is needed.
But the thing is — whatever your opinions about the game — as a business, the NFL needs to expand its markets, sustainably. And that means figuring out how to develop secondary leagues abroad. It’s already a continental-scale league as things stand.