Humble brag – back in 2015, the DB said the Chargers move to LA would fail and that the team would be the perfect candidate to become the mythical London franchise. We have always envisioned it under different ownership, but they literally have no fan base, perfectly cleansed and ready to go.
Vincent Bonsignore of The Athletic now says there are those who have figured this out as well.
The NFL concluded its annual four-game London series on Sunday in front of a robust, energetic crowd of 83,000 at Wembley Stadium. In all, more than 286,000 fans packed Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as the league showcased its brand to European fans.
It marked the 13th straight year the NFL has played games in London. More than two million fans have bought tickets, while merchandise sales and television ratings continue to surge. There is a robust fanbase, a ready-made venue, the necessary political support and more than enough local corporate sponsorship entities to support a permanent team in capital city of England.
The only thing lacking is an NFL owner with the vision and boldness to see past and work around any logistical issues of playing overseas and make the leap of moving his or her franchise across the Atlantic.
That might be changing.
The Athletic has learned through NFL sources that the possibility of the Chargers moving to London has been broached among league personnel. The Athletic also has learned that, while the team is fully committed to Los Angeles where it will move into the new $4.5 billion stadium with the Rams next year, the Chargers would at least listen if the NFL approached them about London as a possible option.
Finally, The Athletic has learned that NFL owners are concerned enough about the Chargers’ situation in L.A., where a crowded sports market and the presence of the more established Rams has resulted in a tepid embracement of the Chargers, that they would provide the necessary support for a relocation to London if the Chargers pursue it.
In other words, London offers the Chargers and the NFL an immediate and rare opportunity to fix a glaring problem in a way that checks off multiple boxes, both for the franchise and the league.
The Chargers would move into a viable venue — likely the NFL-ready Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — that would offer all the perks and monetary benefits necessary to remain financially competitive with the other 31 NFL teams. And they would have the region and market all to themselves to cultivate a fanbase.
The NFL seems to be taking note. And the necessary support for a Chargers move there could be available among fellow owners.
“Some would be happy …” a high-ranking NFL official told The Athletic. “But all of them (are concerned) about them in L.A. So I think they would get (support).”
“We are fully committed and focused on Los Angeles and look forward to continuing to build our fanbase as we transition to our new stadium,” Chargers owner Dean Spanos told The Athletic this week. “We’re seeing progress every day, and we look forward to building on that.”
Should the Chargers pursue the move, the NFL could help build the team’s bridge to London by transferring the $650 million relocation fee it still must pay for the L.A. move to a London relocation. The Chargers also could switch divisions with the Houston Texans — the Chargers to the AFC South and the Texans to the AFC West — or perhaps the league could move the Chargers to the AFC East, Miami Dolphins to the AFC South and Texans to the AFC West.
In doing so, the NFL would eliminate the continuing problem of the Chargers’ awkward fit in Los Angeles, where they are trying to succeed in a challenging market that went two decades without a team. The Rams relocated from St. Louis in 2016, followed by the Chargers from San Diego in 2017.
The Rams had a stronger foothold in L.A. because they called the region home from 1946 to 1994. A large portion of the fanbase stuck with them during their 21 years in St. Louis, helping expedite the process of easing back into the Los Angeles market. The Chargers had a fraction of that foundation after spending the previous 56 years in San Diego.
Yes, some fans in San Diego have remained loyal and committed. But it remains unknown how many of them will buy season tickets at the new Inglewood stadium, which is set to open next year and will be shared by the Rams and Chargers. Meanwhile, a large percentage of fans cut ties completely when the Chargers made the move to L.A.
It has made for a challenging situation. And in retrospect, the NFL and its consultants may have overestimated the vitality of Los Angeles as an immediate two-team market.
The Chargers have an extremely favorable stadium deal that provides a guaranteed percentage of major revenue streams and a long runway for building a fanbase. And while they currently play in the smallest stadium in the NFL at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, the interest in tickets at a cost reflective of the limited seating leaves them in the top 10 in NFL ticket revenue. As a result, by no means are the Chargers in a tenuous situation.
But how long will the NFL give the Chargers to plant a firm and permanent foot in Los Angeles? And with no guarantees that will happen, will the league look for solutions?
A return to San Diego is a nonstarter as the path to a new stadium is nonexistent. The long-talked-about Mission Valley site has been turned over to San Diego State for a mixed use development and construction of a small, college-sized stadium. Meanwhile, London has an NFL caliber stadium in place and a growing fanbase.
On the same day the Jacksonville Jaguars and Texans put a bow on the NFL’s London slate of games, the Chargers hosted the Green Bay Packers nearly 6,000 miles away in Carson. As expected, the game was sold-out. Also as expected, Packers fans took over the 29,000-seat venue much like the faithful of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and others have over the last three seasons.
And while that is a fabulous sign to the NFL that its overall appeal is soaring in the nation’s second-biggest market, it’s troublesome that it comes at the expense of the Chargers. In fact, some Chargers players openly complained on Sunday about essentially having to play 16 road games a year.
There is hope and conviction that, over time, the Chargers will build a sufficient fanbase in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, with the league’s growing concerns about the team’s long-term viability in L.A. and the existence of an eager fanbase and established infrastructure in London, there is at least curiosity about a Chargers move to England.
“The current path they are on will not yield results in the foreseeable future,” an NFL source told The Athletic. “They need to consider something to shake up their franchise. This would give them a major international market and the chance to shine.”
Given the NFL’s growing success as visitors in London, there seems to be optimism that a team — the Chargers or another franchise — could become a permanent resident.
“It’s definitely within the realm of possibility,” said Chris Halpin the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer.
That strength has been cultivated over the years by the NFL’s growing overall presence. That now includes the NFL UK Academy, which offers athletes ages 16-18 the opportunity to combine education with life skills and intensive football training under full-time professional coaches. The objective is to create pathways into employment, further education and, potentially, the opportunity to play college football in the United States.
And as the 28 London games since 2007 have shown — 25 of them have drawn at least 83,000 fans — there are plenty of fans across England and Europe to support a full-time team.
“I think we’ve proven the fanbase is there,” said Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of NFL UK. “The fact (is) we can sell out games for pretty much any type of matchup, and that the fanbase will come out and support it, so I think that test has been met. I think from an operational and logistics perspective, we have a lot of experience in transportation and managing timezones. There’s hotels and practice facilities. I think there’s an awful lot of opportunities there.”
According to NFL research, there is compelling evidence that support for its brand is skyrocketing.
• There are more than five million NFL fans in the UK, including four million avid fans.
• Overnight TV viewership, including RedZone, is up 32 percent from the 2018 season.
• Sky Sports’ weekly ratings have doubled over the past decade.
• UK social-media followers (measured on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts) is up 16 percent over the last year.
• More than 24 million people watched NFL programming on UK television during the 2018 season.
• Streams of NFL programming on BBC iPlayer (on-demand) increased 150 percent in 2018 season over 2017.
• The NFLUK’s email database has risen from 35,000 prior to the start of the London series in 2007 to 490,000 today, with NFL UK having a total digital community of 1.9 million.
Certain issues would have to be addressed to make a full-time team possible. For instance, Kirkwood noted that there would have to be an agreement between the U.S. and England in terms of immigration and visas and taxation.
“You want any future team to have a similar setup to other teams. You’d want to have parity as much as possible,” Kirkwood said. “You wouldn’t want a free agent, in a theoretical world, to be thinking, ‘I’m not going to think about going to London because it’s just a headache.’”
No doubt, there would be resistance from some NFL players to playing on a team so far away from home, but for every individual who might express reluctance, one could view it as an opportunity to have an entire continent to himself for branding and marketing purposes.
“I’d love to play out here — it’s a different energy and atmosphere with fans in the UK,” Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said recently upon touring the new facilities at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. “If they can find a way to bring the same passion that they have for soccer to NFL games, it will be huge.
“I remember the first game I came to in London — the stadium was full of fans wearing all different jerseys from different teams. It’s cool to see how someone from the UK would gravitate towards a team without growing up being rooted in it. NFL is definitely picking up over here.”
Rams quarterback Blake Bortles heard constant speculation about a possible move to London when he played for the Jaguars, given that Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan has major business ties in Great Britain.
“I think the one tough thing, and maybe the one thing I’d struggle with it now, is when you have a family,” Bortles said. “You have kids, so do you take the family over there? Stuff like that. Where do they go to school? How does the tax thing differentiate between there and the U.S.? So things like that are all the little intricacies that go into it. But I think it would be one of those situations where some guys would love it and some guys would hate it.”
In addition, there are logistical issues when it comes to creating a fair schedule for a team situated in London — playing eight games at home and eight games in the U.S. and vice versa for the teams traveling abroad.
The team in London would have to do multiple-game swings in America to address the travel issue, which would necessitate setting up a home base somewhere in the U.S. to practice. NFL schedule makers would have to be cognizant of the teams visiting London. For example, West Coast teams like the Rams and Seahawks would have to play as far east as possible the week before their London trip, and they would either practice somewhere on the East Coast or in London in the week leading up to that game.
Due to the timezone challenges, Sunday games in London would have to start at 6 p.m. or 9 p.m locally to fit in the American television windows. Monday night or Sunday night games would not be possible in London. Also, the quick turnaround nature of the playoffs could cause some scheduling gymnastics when it came to trying to get a U.S.-based team to London on short notice.
But all of those issues seem more like manageable dynamics than deal-breaking hindrances.
“It’s a little bit like, going back to 2007 when we announced the very first game, there were a lot of people with concerns and legitimate concerns,” Kirkwood said. “And you have coaches that are creatures of habit. They like routine and they don’t want to be seen as pioneers. The only pioneers they want to be are of winning championship games. And somewhere along the line we made a decision and worked hard to alleviate those concerns.
“I think the market is close to being ready.”
And now there might be a team willing to take the plunge.
The decision to make the 110-mile move from San Diego to Los Angeles ultimately rested on Spanos’ shoulders. But extenuating circumstances, created by California’s reluctance to spend public money to build city- or state-owned venues for professional sports teams, plus the NFL’s miscalculation on how to deal with that reality, helped force his hand.
In fact, the NFL had one last chance to address the unique circumstances the Chargers faced in San Diego — obstacles that teams in Minnesota, Atlanta and Dallas and many others didn’t deal with while forging public/private stadium partnerships in their markets. But when the NFL owners’ finance and stadium committees opted against kicking in more league money to help bridge the financial gap, the Chargers’ fate in San Diego was essentially sealed.
Spanos decided to exercise the option given to him by the NFL to join the Rams in L.A. as tenants in the new privately funded stadium that Rams owner Stan Kroenke was building as part of the 298-acre stadium and entertainment district in Inglewood. Even at the time, it was viewed as the best of two less-than-ideal options for Spanos.
“But remember what their choices were,” a high-ranking league official told The Athletic. “They were never getting a deal done in San Diego. So they should have stayed and played in a decrepit building that was falling apart?”
Nearly three years into their new life in Los Angeles, the Chargers face an uphill climb to create their niche. Meanwhile in London, everything is in place to welcome them, including the brand-new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which was built with both the English Premier League and the NFL in mind. It opened in April 2019 and hosted two of this year’s four London games.
“We have created a new landmark in London, one that is truly global, and one that will stage the world’s two most popular sports, Premier League football and NFL, along with many other sports and world-class entertainment,” said Daniel Levy, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. “This partnership with the NFL has enabled us to push the boundaries of stadium design. It is something that has never been done before anywhere in the world.”
Could the Chargers take that one step further?
“If you do something transformational, you want it to be additive. You don’t want it to be taking away from anything. But if someone wants to do it, I think the fanbase has shown that they are there,” Kirkwood said. “I go back to how the international series was first positioned to owners back in 2006 when they first voted. Which was, ‘We’re the biggest sport domestically,’ but if you actually want to think a generation or two generations time, you have to keep thinking like our forefathers did in terms of how do you stretch yourself, how do you test yourself?”
The Chargers and the NFL could be poised to make that leap.
Will Brinson of CBSSports.com sees four-week travel blocks:
Chargers to the AFC South
In this situation, the Chargers and Texans would flip divisions, with the Texans moving to the AFC West and the Chargers moving to the AFC South. From an “integrity of the history of the game” standpoint (basically don’t burn down tradition for money), this would make the most sense. The Chargers already left San Diego and are moving to London in this hypothetical, so we’re not going to get too caught up in their sense of tradition. They’re nomads at this point. The AFC South was created in 2002. It has no real historical significance outside of the Colts (not from Indy!) and Texans (expansion team!) not liking each other. The Jaguars are another expansion team and the Titans moved from Houston. The tradition is not rich here. Shifting around the division wouldn’t be a big deal.
From a travel standpoint the AFC South would be vastly preferable. The NFL scheduling gurus already have plenty to deal with as it is, but mixing a London TEAM in there would be chaos. That team can’t fly back and forth each week. The Chargers would need their schedule broken up into quadrants, basically. Four weeks in London, four weeks in the US, four weeks in London, four weeks in the US. It would be a huge mess.
Looking at their 2020 opponents (which includes the AFC South), the Chargers away games would include the following: one of the Steelers/Browns/Ravens/Bengals, one each of the Jaguars/Colts/Titans and also the Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins and Saints. So you would need to try and divvy those up into two manageable four-game swings.
Operating under that very lose approach to schedule making (and this presumes no 17- or 18-game situation with a double bye obviously), the Chargers could fly to New York from London and play the Bills in Buffalo. Then fly to Indianapolis the following week to play the Colts. Then fly to New Orleans the following week to play the Saints. Then fly to Miami to play the Dolphins after that before returning home for a “bye week.”
Then in their second US tour, the Chargers could fly into Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers, head to the rust belt to play whatever AFC North team they’re matched up against, go to Nashville after that for a game against the Titans and then play the Jaguars before departing back to London.
OR — and perhaps the NFL would lean this way — the Chargers could wrap up their season in the United States. That way, in the event they make the postseason, they wouldn’t have to travel from London for the game or, at least, the wild card game they host in London would be “fair” because both teams would be traveling from the U.S.
As for home games, you would have to just send a wave of four teams to London, I suppose. The Chargers would play the Titans, Jaguars, Colts, Panthers, Falcons, Jets, Patriots and one of the Raiders/Texans/Chiefs/Broncos in 2020. So I guess the league just got eight international games and now has to schedule those teams byes around each of those matchups.
This is exhausting to think about, I can’t imagine operating like this as a football team. And it’s not even the convoluted option.
The DB thinks it could work in two-week increments. Let’s give the Chargers a base near a big Eastern airport – say Dulles in Virginia or on Long Island near Kennedy.
They fly to England, say on Thursday, for a game on Sunday. And of course, they need a training base. Then fly back to Virginia/Long Island right after the second game. Rinse and repeat three more times. We count about 36 days total in England.
Or they could do it with three segments – a three, a two and a three.
2020 TOTTENHAM CHARGERS SCHEDULE
Week 1 – at Tampa Bay
Week 2 – at Atlanta
Week 3 – JACKSONVILLE
Week 4 – KANSAS CITY
Week 5 – ATLANTA
Week 6 – at Tennessee
Week 7 – at Indianapolis
Week 8 – CAROLINA
Week 9 – NEW ENGLAND
Week 10 – TENNESSEE
Week 11 – bye
Week 12 – at Buffalo
Week 13 – at Miami
Week 14 – INDIANAPOLIS
Week 15- NY JETS
Week 16 – at Pittsburgh
Week 17 – at Jacksonville
So they spend just over two weeks in England in late September-early October. Just over two weeks in England in early November and nine days in early December.
If the CBA were to include say a $200,000 international bonus for every Chargers player, over and above their salary.
If the team arranged for apartment style living for those 40 days or so.
We think it’s doable and for some adventurous souls would be a more interesting way to spend your career than just playing in (fit in your least favorite smaller market city here).
It makes at least as much sense as the Rays plan to play in Tampa Bay/Montreal.
That said, as we go to press the NFL and Chargers owner Dean Spanos are quick to issue rather forceful denials. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
After Chargers owner Dean Spanos referred to a report that his team could move to London as “bulls–t,” the NFL released a statement saying the same thing, only in more family-friendly language.
The NFL statement made clear that the league sees the Chargers ditching Los Angeles for London as a non-starter.
“There is no substance whatsoever to this report,” the league said. “No consideration has been given to the Chargers playing anywhere other than Los Angeles at the new stadium in Hollywood Park next season and beyond. There have been no discussions of any kind between the NFL and the Chargers regarding moving to London. Both our office and the Chargers are entirely focused on the success of the team in Los Angeles.”
So where did the report come from? As we noted when it was first reported, it felt like a story that was planted by someone who wants to push an agenda. Perhaps that agenda is related to the NFL’s efforts in London, or perhaps that agenda is related to the relationship between the Chargers and the Rams in their shared stadium, but it doesn’t appear that there’s any reason to believe the Chargers are actually going to London.
That said, sure Spanos and the NFL will deny this, but we never got the sense that this story was talking about 2020 or 2021. But what if we are five years into the dual occupation of Los Angeles and the Chargers are drawing 20,000 visiting fans? We think the NFL would rather have the team float to London rather than scuttle to San Antonio or abandoned markets like St. Louis, San Diego or Oakland.