Mexico City. London. Toronto. If you are an NFL fan and are not familiar with these three cities, you should be. These are the three locations outside of the United States where NFL Regular Season games have been played. In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals and San Fransisco 49ers faced off in Mexico City. In 2007, the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins gave Britain a taste of American Football when they played at Wembley Stadium in London. And if you didn’t catch it, last night the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers faced off in the Rogers Centre in Toronto (Buffalo won 24-21). Buffalo has signed a contract to play 8 games (5 regular season, 3 pre-season) in Toronto through 2012.
The globalization of a sport is nothing new. The NBA has had teams playing exhibition games in Europe for a few years now. Reigning Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow, Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona and Lithuania’s Lietuvos Rytas will face the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors and, possibly, the Los Angeles Clippers at undetermined NBA venues in the near future. Playing games abroad is great for the sport, increases league exposure around the globe, and is helping to increase revenues.
But what about the loyal fans back in the States? How about the season ticket holders, facing increasing ticket prices, and receiving a fewer amount of games for the price they are paying? Many fans in Buffalo fear that the playing of these games abroad might be the beginning of the end of Bills in west New York. Yet, Toronto says that the series of games is just an opportunity to showcase Toronto as a city that can host a permanent NFL franchise, and nothing more.
How about the players? Home field advantage is something that every NFL team cherishes. If you have been to an NFL game before, you have probably witnessed the effect of an entire stadium of cheering fans backing their team as they drive down the field late in the fourth quarter trying to win a game. In 2002, when Soldier Field was under renovation, the Chicago Bears played all their “home” games at Memorial Stadium two and a half hours south of Chicago at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, home of the Illinois Fighting Illini. Most of the players felt like they played 16 away games that year.
I am in no way against the NFL trying to market and globalize the sport of football at all. I think it would be a great thing to expand the league and nurture an interest in football in countries outside of the United States. I just feel like if it is going to be done, the NFL needs to come up with a more effective way where the teams don’t have to play “home” games that could potentially decide the outcomes of their season (which Buffalo may have to deal with this year) outside of their actual stadiums. Under the current system, loyal fans of the franchises that must play a home game at an off-site venue suffer by losing one of only eight home games they can possibly see in person. The NFL must be able to effectively spread and expose the international community to their brand of football in a way that will not hurt an NFL team’s win/loss record and disappoint their fans.