Who’s next? L.A. or London?

Wembley Stadium in London.

Wembley Stadium in London.

By Pete Zarustica/E Pluribus Unum

We don’t build palaces for kings and pharaohs any more; we build them for football teams. Where we build these stately (and hugely expensive) pleasure palaces is the source of much speculation and anguish.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said recently that he wants league franchises in Los Angeles and London. But who’s first in line?

“It doesn’t matter,” he told fans on Oct. 23. “ I’d love to be back in Los Angeles. But it has to be done in the right way, we have to do it successfully … I want both [London and L.A.] but it doesn’t matter which one is first.”

That’s the kind of maddening statement that fills long-suffering L.A. fans with a combination of hope and frustration. How could Los Angeles not be first in line, being the second-biggest media market in the nation, and without an NFL team of its own in nearly 20 years?

I feel your pain, Angelinos, but London is equally appealing to the league powers-that-be. Despite the failure of the old World League of American Football (WLAF? Remember that?) and its successor, NFL Europe, there is a strong belief that expanding to the Old World could eventually (key word!) be hugely lucrative and that Jolly Ol’ England is the spot.

The old WLAF/NFL-E teams averaged an underwhelming 15,000 fans or so a game, and was not really major league. The London Monarchs, who fielded a team from 1991-98, had some huge crowds, including a turnout of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium in their first year.

There is an International Series underway where games between NFL teams are contested in London, partly as a way of expanding the league’s worldwide brand.  Because of the tremendous influence of American culture (and the absence of a language barrier … mostly), the Brits are considered the people most likely to embrace a Yankee sport.

The fact that American football is derived from a still-popular English game, rugby, doesn’t hurt, either.

The planned Farmers Field in Los Angeles.

The planned Farmers Field in Los Angeles.

Skepticism abounds, of course. L.A. has been promised a team since Bill Clinton’s first term, and there’s little evidence that the league is any closer to fulfilling that vow than it was when the moving vans left Anaheim and L.A. with the gear of the Rams and Raiders.

Setting aside the example of the NHL, efforts at internationalization of American sports leagues have not exactly been a roaring success. The baseball Toronto Blue Jays are hanging in there, but the Montreal Expos are now the Washington Nationals, and the basketball Vancouver Grizzlies are in Memphis.

The scheduling and travel issues involved in shuttling teams across the Atlantic could become interesting, too.

Certainly fans in Los Angeles would argue that their area should be given first consideration, considering their plight and potential. There appears to be a stadium – Farmers Field – in downtown L.A. ready to go as soon as a franchise move or creation is announced.

But most of the league owners seem satisfied with the status quo. L.A. area football fans watch NFL telecasts in huge numbers despite the lack of a local team, and the owners love the idea of using the open market in La-La-Land as bargaining leverage when they want to strong-arm a city into ponying up more money for their ever-more-lavish stadiums.

Rumors of moves by the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars and others are just that: rumors.  If you read between the lines of what Goodell said, you might find the real message: the NFL wouldn’t mind being in the lands of Hollywood and Westminster Abbey, but only as expansion teams at some indeterminate time in the future,

To put it another way, empires aren’t built in a day, and they don’t make decisions very fast, either. As long as the owner-kings of professional football are making tons (tonnes?) of dollars, they’re in no hurry to plant their flag in the lands of fog or smog.

So, sure, the NFL will be in Los Angeles and London someday. But when that happens, fans will arrive at games wearing jetpacks and watching instant replays on 3-D holographic displays.

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