NFL – a UK Franchise?

Over the last couple of years, the big suggestions in terms of where to expand the NFL in terms of franchise locations have been Los Angeles and the UK. With the Rams now going home, the focus falls squarely on the thought of a NFL franchise making the Leap and setting up shop across the pond. Since 2007, there has been at least one NFL game per season played in the UK as part of the NFL International Series. So far all these games have taken place at Wembley Stadium, but this year will see Twickenham Stadium host its first NFL game and there are also plans for future games to be played at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium.

So far, the International Series has been a resounding success in the UK, with attendances at all but one of the games numbering 80,000+ spectators. The only game to have fallen below this attendance so far was the 2011 game between the Bears and Buccaneers (Attendance 76,981) where ticket sales were delayed due to the Lockout in the offseason.

Looking at these figures suggests that bringing an NFL franchise to the UK would be a great idea, but would this really be right for the league?

 

A new player base?

Here in the UK, the majority of sports teams find players at a young age and develop them in academies until they are ready for the professional game. The NFL, like most US sports, has a very different way of dealing with player progression. Currently, the majority of players initially enter the NFL from their college. Each year, eligible college players put their name forward for the Draft, where all 32 teams take it in turns to pick the players they think will help the franchise reach the top. Though it is certainly the easiest way to maximize your chance of making it into a team’s plans, this isn’t the only way for players to make a NFL roster. A number of players will end up on teams after being undrafted and go on to have stellar careers, such as former Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went on to lead ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. More recently, there was a huge focus last year on former rugby league superstar Jarryd Hayne, who turned down a lucrative contract with Parramatta Eels to try his luck in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers as a running back/return specialist. After a promising pre-season, he had a topsy-turvy regular season that included him being dropped to the practice squad but then making it back into the 53-man roster as an injury replacement. A new coaching team at San Francisco this year will hopefully help Hayne shine like so many followers of the NRL already know he can.

But how many players with skills perfectly suited for an NFL career are being missed by living in countries where it is not so easy to get the necessary coaching and training to make it at the top level? Setting up a UK franchise could not only lead to more people playing in this country, but also result in a higher level of coaching and training, which could lead to some top UK-based players looking to find their way onto a NFL roster, either through the US college and draft route or by other means.

The national team

The NFL is increasing in popularity here in the UK, and many fans will still be looking to nail their colours to the proverbial mast. A UK franchise would be the perfect lightning rod for new fans to flock to. Though only the NFL’s equivalent to a club, the fact that this would be the only UK-based franchise in the league would mean that a large proportion of the UK NFL fanbase would likely support the local franchise as their team. Even fans, like myself, who are already committed to another franchise would likely take on a UK franchise as their ‘second team’ and consider buying a season ticket to get the experience of supporting a team through a full season’s worth of home matches. The NFL have already appeared to promote the idea of the UK fans getting behind a specific team by having franchises like the Jaguars and the Rams repeatedly returning to London, increasing the fans familiarity with the players and coaches.

A Dis-united Kingdom

The above suggestion is what people certainly hope will happen if a franchise sets up in the UK, but there is certainly a lot of risk attached. A lot of UK NFL fas will have likely picked a franchise to support by now, especially if they have been following the league for a couple of years. Some of these fans may now be committed to their current team so may become fans of the UK team, but there will be some who will only see a UK team as their second team. I’ve been a Tennessee Titans fan since I got into the NFL about 10 years ago. I’ve stayed loyal to them through better or (more often recently) worse. They will always be my franchise. Would established fans want to fork out large amounts of money on a ‘second’ team? I know I wouldn’t! At the moment, there has only been a maximum of 3 games per season, so it is still seen as somewhat of an event. Once there is a full 8 match home schedule, what guarantee is there that the stadium would still be filling on a regular basis?

Due to the Titans’ lack of success in recent years, I’ve picked a team to support each year in the Super Bowl. I went to the Bills v Jaguars game at Wembley in 2015 and had a great time, but I think part of this was that the atmosphere was amazing and the game went right down to the wire. In recent years though, the result has more often than not been a bit one-sided. It’s bad enough keeping interested when watching your favourite team get blown out, but this would only be magnified if it was your second team that you were watching.

Not only this, but what if the UK team is against a US-based team with a strong UK fan-base? There is the chance that the home support is outnumbered by the ‘away’ fans, which will limit the home advantage gained over opponents. There is also the worry that if the team is not successful quickly, fans may begin to lose interest and this could do more harm than good to the future of the NFL in the UK.

A Logistical Nightmare

Time to state the obvious now: there’s a heck of a time difference between the UK and the US. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to record the late NFL kickoffs because I’ve been falling asleep on the sofa before it’s even started! In 2015, all three London games began at 9:30am Eastern Time. The NFL is first and foremost a business, and the broadcasting rights are so important. It wouldn’t be easy to get a time organised that benefits fans in both the UK and the US whilst also providing broadcasters with a time that will allow the highest possible viewership.

The time difference and length of journey across the Atlantic would also take its toll on the players and staff. With player safety becoming a greater concern each year, it is important that they get enough rest and recovery between matches. At this moment, a team who visits the UK has had its bye week arranged for the very next week to give them time to recover. The only way this could be done with a UK-based franchise (without expanding the season length and adding more bye weeks) would be for them to have all their home games, their bye week, then all away games, or vice versa; but then this would require a base in the UK for the team when they are on the UK stage of their tour.

There is also the necessity to find a stadium to call home. All NFL stadia have a capacity of at least 60,000. There are currently only 8 rugby/football stadia in the UK with a capacity that high, most of these belonging to national sports teams. A ground share could be possible in the short-term, but a new stadium would be all but essential in the long-term. That won’t come cheap.

 

The Best Option?

It would be an expensive gamble for an owner to uproot a franchise from their current US market to move over to the UK. There is the possibility of a huge reward, but also a very large and expensive risk attached. This has all been under the assumption that a UK team would mean one of the 32 current franchises being relocated. The NFL could always decide to expand and have the UK become the home of one of the new teams, but this would be very expensive for the NFL as they would then need to look at possibly amending the league structure, including the length of season.

I think that it would be more beneficial to keep the NFL International Series coming to the UK rather than setting up a UK franchise. A couple of matches each year allows fans to see this as more of an event, while also allowing a number of stadia to be used depending on availability. So far all of the UK matches have been based in London, but I would be very interested to see a game at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, especially under a closed roof. Should the matches continue to be well received, I think it would then be good to look at the UK for games that can use a neutral stadium, such as the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl.

If the NFL are indeed planning to expand to the UK and beyond, maybe it would be better to look at a way that NFL Europe or an equivalent could work. Having a number of teams based over the continent could allow for a developmental league, with each team being affiliated to a number of US franchises. This can surely benefit players on the fringe of the current NFL rosters to get regular game-time against decent level opposition. Players who have all the intangibles like Jarryd Hayne could use this to learn the ins and outs of the game if transitioning from another sport and players who through poor form/injury are now struggling to make an NFL roster could use this as a proving ground to show they are still capable of leading an NFL franchise to the playoffs.

 

But the important thing is that this is just my personal opinion. I would love to hear your views on the matter. Would you support a UK-based franchise? Do you think it is feasible? Or would you suggest another option for the NFL that you think would be better?

2016 Six Nations: Team of the tournament

The 6 Nations is over for another year. England have cast off the shadow of World Cup embarrassment to win their first Grand Slam since 2003. It’s easy to argue that this hasn’t been the best quality 6 Nations – injuries took their toll on some teams, 2 teams were rebuilding – but there were still plenty of players who shone with their individual performances. Some of these players did exactly what fans everywhere expected them to do, but some came out of relative obscurity to become some of the top players of the tournament.

Below, I have put forward my opinion of the team of the tournament. Some positions I found simple to pick, but some were a real struggle so for each selection I have tried to justify why these players have made the XV, whilst also taking note of some of the players who were very unlucky to miss out.

Head Coach – Eddie Jones: It would be hard to argue against someone who’s just won the Grand Slam at the best of times, but when you look at where this England team was after the World Cup then Eddie becomes the obvious pick. Whilst avoiding wholesale changes from the Lancaster regime, he has began to blood young exciting talent as they become ready. A 100% winning record and a Grand Slam will certainly help the RFU feel they got the right man.

Loosehead Prop – Alasdair Dickinson: Oddly, as I used to play prop myself, I found this possibly the toughest position to pick. I thought Jack McGrath and Rob Evans both had good tournaments, but when I came to make my selection, I couldn’t see past the general dominance of the Scottish scum throughout the tournament. Control of the set piece is vital in modern rugby and with the scrum being a great chance of 3 points at the moment (don’t even get me started on THAT subject), the Scottish prop has my vote.

Hooker – Guilhem Guirado: France had a poor tournament, very rarely looking completely comfortable. If Sergio Parisse’s drop goal attempt had been successful in Week 1, it’s possible that they could have been fighting to avoid the Wooden Spoon this year. One shining light throughout this though was their captain, Guirado. The Toulon hooker edges out Dylan Hartley with his impact going forward and his 2 tries.

Tighthead Prop – WP Nel: Similar to his Scottish front row colleague, Dickinson, much of this was based on his impact in the scrum, but he also performed well in open play. It’s no surprise that the Scottish scrum has become more of a weapon since Nel made his international début. Surely at this moment in time he is favourite for the 3 shirt for the Lions Tour.

Second Rows – Maro Itoje & George Kruis: Did Eddie Jones mean for these two to play significant game time as England’s second row pairing? Injuries to some of England’s more experienced locks led to the emergence of a young but very promising partnership. ‘Krutoje’, as I saw on Twitter last night, caused havoc at the opposition line-out and did their job well in the loose too. Jonny Gray, Alun Wyn Jones and Devin Toner all performed well at times but at times, this English pairing was almost unplayable. At a combined age of 47, there is plenty of chance that this could be England’s second row partnership for many years to come.

Blindside Flanker – CJ Stander: After winning back-to-back titles, the form of the Irish in the early weeks was probably one of the biggest disappointments. One player who was anything but disappointing though was CJ Stander. The Munster flanker was Man of the Match on his début against Wales and continued to carry hard throughout the tournament, finishing with 2 tries. The Emerald Isle may have more than its fair share of injuries in the back row, but they have unearthed a real gem in Stander.

Openside flanker – John Hardie: 7 is always going to be a difficult position to pick purely because of the differing playing styles of the players. Some lapses in discipline aside, James Haskell performed well for England, carrying strong and tackling non-stop, but I prefer my 7 to be a ball-stealer. Of those who played 7 regularly this tournament, I felt that Hardie was the best ‘jackal’ that I  could pick. Hardie is solid in defence and often does the dirty jobs that no-one else wants to do. Similar to WP Nel, the improvement in Scottish fortunes has coincided with the former Highlander’s début.

Number 8 – Billy Vunipola: Who else could I pick here? Vunipola is surely one of the top contenders for Player of the Tournament. The vast majority of his carries broke the gainline and helped England generate the quick ball that has often been missing in recent years. I will be very interested to see what Eddie Jones decides to do once Nathan Hughes is eligible to play for England.

Scrum Half – Greig Laidlaw: I’ve tried to avoid any Gloucester bias with this selection. Conor Murray finished the tournament with 3 tries, but the Scottish captain gets my vote for the 9 shirt. He may not be most dynamic in his position, but he marshals the team and more often than not makes the right decision in the heat of the moment. A very accurate goal-kicker, his 62 points saw him finish second only to Owen Farrell (69) in points scored this tournament.

Fly Half – Dan Biggar: What a shame that Carlo Canna missed so much of the tournament, he looked like he could be the 10 Italy have been waiting for all these years. Sexton had some great moments but seems unable to last a match without getting injured (though some of those injuries are a bit questionable). Dan Biggar may not have been at his best this tournament, but he still managed to keep the Welsh back line operating well on the whole, whilst finishing the tournament with the third highest points tally (54).

Inside Centre – Jamie Roberts: Owen Farrell was the top points scorer and helped ease the pressure on George Ford. Gonzalo Garcia put his body on the line time and again for the Italian cause. Both were in contention, but I’ve gone with the Welsh brick wall that is Jamie Roberts for the 12 shirt. Though quiet against England, he was Man of the Match in Week 2 and must have only just lost out to CJ Stander in Week 1. Strong in defence in the early rounds, we then got to see more of his attacking ability as the tournament went on.

Outside Centre – Michele Campagnaro: Sergio Parisse is often the de facto Player of the Tournament for the Azzuri, but I think this time he was overshadowed by the young Exeter Chief. Duncan Taylor was very unlucky to miss out here, but to have performed so well in a struggling team suggests that Campagnaro is a player to build the new generation of Italian rugby around. When all are fit, Rob Baxter will have some headaches selecting his Exeter midfield with the talents of Campagnaro, Slade, Steenson and Hill available and Devoto joining in the summer.

Wings – George North & Tommy Seymour: George North’s scoring drought is well and truly over. A try in each of his last 4 games saw him finish top of the try scoring charts and earned him the 11 shirt in this team. Tommy Seymour may have only finished with 2 tries, but it’s his general play that has got him the 14 shirt here. Scotland’s kicking game would not have been as effective without Seymour’s chasing. If Seymour wasn’t up there competing to win back the high ball, he was usually there to make the tackle as soon as his opponent landed with the ball.

Fullback – Stuart Hogg: Hogg and Vunipola were the easiest selections to make in this team. I can’t see beyond these two for Player of the Tournament. We’ve known for years that Hogg is a quality player, but now that he’s in a competitive team, it’s becoming clear just how good he is. An elusive runner with quick hands and a monster boot, he is one of the most exciting players in the Northern Hemisphere. If he can continue this form into the summer tour, then he surely has to come into the discussion when picking a World XV. The scariest thing? He’s only 23 so has plenty of time to just get even better!

 

So there you go, my 2016 Six Nations XV. I’m sure that there’s at least a few controversial selections in here, so feel free to post your own selections in the comments if you think that there’s someone I missed.

 

Now it’s time to start the countdown to the start of the summer internationals: England v Wales on 29/05/16…

Are broadcasters failing the women’s game?

On Saturday night, Dylan Hartley will be leading his team onto the Stade de France pitch with the intention of winning England’s first 6 Nations Grand Slam since 2003.  What a lot of people may not realise is that the England Women were also fighting for the Grand Slam against their French counterparts tonight, in a match that would decide the winner of this year’s 6 Nations tournament.

When the England Women won the Rugby World Cup in 2014, the general thought was that this was just what was needed to spur on more girls to play rugby. Unfortunately it would seem like this chance is going to waste, as the amount of women’s rugby being broadcast seems to be decreasing if anything.

(SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!!) My friend’s website http://www.rugbyontv.co/ is my first port of call if I’m trying to find what channel a match is on. Just one look at where to find the Women’s 6 Nations this weekend said it all: the title decider, France v England was on the Sky Sports 3 Red Button. Wales v Italy on the S4C website. Ireland v Scotland? Who knows…

Now I understand that it’s not cheap to broadcast a sports tournament, but surely one of the top international rugby tournaments (irrespective of gender) deserves a regular broadcaster. How can we expect girls to want to start playing rugby when they can’t regularly watch these internationals and develop female role models? I’ve found it hard enough remembering which channel I have needed for each match of the men’s tournament this year…and that’s only being spread over 2 channels! How are even die-hard fans expected to remember where they need to watch when there’s half a dozen possible TV channels, before taking into account red buttons and websites?! Its not as if they even get much of a mention during the broadcasts of the men’s games, if we’re lucky we get a quick overview of the 3 matches that last’s almost as long as the highlights of a single men’s match.

For those that may miss this quick recap – assuming we get one this weekend- the French Women beat England 17-12, a result which has won them the title this year. England may be World Champions, but they have now gone 4 years without winning the 6 Nations. There has also not been a Grand Slam for the last 2 years in the Women’s tournament. Matches are getting closer by the year as results much less predictable. The tournament is getting more exciting, yet we’re finding it harder to watch it.

There’s not even the usual 4 years between the last World Cup and the next. The cycle has been brought forward a year to maximise the chances of top players also being able to play in the Olympics and Sevens World Cup. With the 2017 tournament being hosted in Ireland, this was the perfect time to raise the profile of the game, giving the chance for record crowds and broadcasting figures , but it would seem that chance is going to waste.

A focus on women’s rugby at each World Cup will help to get a bit more recognition for the the sport, but in order for it to grow and improve in the way that some other women’s sports have (a perfect example being women’s football) it is vital that the broadcasting of women’s rugby, especially the 6 Nations, improves going forwards. Fingers crossed this happens soon…

Tackling the school rugby debate

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of debate on whether school rugby should involve full contact or if it is better to just teach tag rugby in schools. When the debate began, my immediate thought was to keep the contact, but I’ve given myself a bit of time to think about it and thought it was about time to try to put together a balanced argument both ways on the matter.

Against the tackle

The main argument to ban the tackle is the risk of injury to the children playing. This is a valid concern, rugby is first and foremost a collision sport. At each contact, especially the ruck, the tackle and the scrum, there is a chance of a player getting injured. I have always been lucky to avoid any serious injuries, but I certainly developed enough cuts and bruises over my time to look like someone had been giving me a good beating. I’ve known plenty of people when I was at school who missed time due to injuries.Broken bones, sprains and dislocations are always a risk when going into contact.

On top of this, recent years have made a big focus on the risk of concussion. George North has missed significant playing time in recent seasons following a series of concussions, but this is not a risk limited to just the pros. I’ve helped out a bit in Junior level club rugby the last few years and seen kids pick up concussions.

There is no guarantee that playing tag rugby would completely eliminate all chance of injury, but it would certainly lead to a reduction in injuries, especially the more serious ones.

For the tackle

Rugby is a contact sport, plain and simple. That is a big part of what makes it such a popular game to watch and play. Would Twickenham or Murrayfield fill up for international tag rugby games? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

Furthermore, it’s not as if rugby is the only sport in schools that contains a risk of injury. Football is in itself a dangerous sport, there is plenty of chance to get injured from a poor football tackle. There is also a concussion risk in football from players attempting to head the ball, to the point that there were discussions of banning this for under 11s in America. Hockey is another sport played in schools that again naturally has a risk attached to it. Give a bunch of kids a big wooden stick and make them run around trying to hit a ball, what could possibly go wrong…?  As I said earlier I’ve been lucky with injuries, to the point that my worst injury (barring one unfortunate knock to the knee) was a broken nose doing the high jump of all events (I’m a certain kind of special). If rugby should be changed at school due to injury risk, then why should all of these other sports stay as they are?

One of the big arguments to not change rugby is that it is character building. As an 11 year old, I weighted 10 stone and was seriously unfit, I didn’t mind a kickabout with friends but would not have considered playing sport seriously. Fast forward a few months and I was a regular starter form my school’s rugby B-team. One of the big selling points of rugby is that it’s a game for everyone – tall, short, big or small – there’s a position for everyone.  If I hadn’t started playing when I did, I am pretty certain that I would be a very different person. Rugby has always prided itself on its values of respect and camaraderie, it certainly helped bring me out of my shell as a kid, and helped me through university too. Tag rugby puts ball skills, elusiveness and running lines at a premium, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not a sport that 11 year old me would have felt comfortable in.

There is also the argument that if we delay the teaching of tackling, we will be making it harder for our pros to compete at the top of the game. Maro Itoje is only 21 years old but has 3 senior international caps (2 of them in the starting XV) and a man of the match to his name. Martyn Williams has already described him as a future British & Irish Lions captain. If he hadn’t been tackling in school, how long would it have taken him to break into the national team, or would he have missed out completely? While England as a rugby nation is certainly behind some of the top countries in terms of ball handling ability – just look at the New Zealand props during the World Cup – would delaying the introduction of tackling put us even further back in our battle to reach the top of the game?

Time to compromise?

It’s impossible to deny that playing full contact rugby will run the risk of injury. The real debate should be how can the risk be minimised so that the game can continue to expand whilst also protecting the players.

Proper coaching is vital. I lost count of the number of times I heard coaches say that it was important to go into contact with complete conviction, as being hesitant was more likely to result in injury to the players involved. A lot of the head injuries we see are at least in part down to poor tackling technique, players putting their head in the wrong place when making a tackle, or going for the big man-and-ball tackle so clashing heads. Incidents like this need to be shown as how NOT to tackle as well as careful coaching of correct and safe tackling technique. There also needs to be a greater focus on avoiding the big collision, running at a tackler’s arms and shoulders or, even better running at space, rather than running head on into a tackler front-on. Not only should that reduce the chance and severity of injuries, but it should also improve the quality of rugby played.

The good news is that the media is improving in how it deals with these incidents during a match. A few seasons back players would be applauded by commentators for carrying on playing after a knock to the head that had clearly caused them issues. They were warriors who would put their body on the line for their team, nothing was more important than the result. Now commentators are quick to discuss player safety and point out instances of poor and dangerous tackling technique, even if the incident itself hasn’t led to a noticeable injury. This shift in focus during match broadcasts will only help to educate kids in safe and proper technique.

I feel that tag rugby does have a place in the school curriculum, but not at the complete expanse of contact rugby. When I was at school, the boys were split into 2 groups for rugby: the team and the rest. Maybe the ‘rest’ category needs to be split into 2 groups, one for contact rugby and one for tag rugby. The team and the contact group should still play tag rugby to improve their rugby skills, but then at east there is a group available for any kids who do not want to play contact or whose parents don’t want them to play contact rugby.

But this is just my personal opinion. The people who get paid to make the big important decisions need to look at all the evidence and options available to make sure they are coming to the best possible outcome for all parties. Ministers, medical officers and RFU officials, its over to you…