The NFL’s Logistics Problem

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two months at No sports league in the world makes more money
than the American National Football League. The NFL earns more yearly revenue than the
English Premier League, the Champions League, Formula One, the Japanese Nippon Professional
Baseball League, and the Kontinental Hockey League combined. It is by far the largest sports league in
the world by revenue. Making up the NFL are 32 football teams each
themselves essentially acting as their own distinct businesses. These teams are spread out all across the
contiguous United States—some only 30 miles or 45 kilometers apart from each other, some
nearly 3,000 miles or 4,500 kilometers apart. Now, American football teams are some of the
largest in sports, both physically and in numbers. They have a roster of 56 players—the majority
of which play in any given game. These players weigh on average about 250 pounds
or 110 kilograms. This team size leads to some particular travel
needs. Players each require a first class seat or,
at the very least, the seat next to them free in economy meaning those 56 players take up
far more than 56 seats. On top of that, a team typically brings more
than 100 support staff and an immense amount of cargo to each away game. With the exception of the largest, most valuable
ones, most other professional sports teams in the US will just fly on chartered narrow-body
aircraft like a320’s, 737’s, or 757’s, but most NFL teams, given their size, require
something larger. NFL teams tend to charter their aircraft from
commercial airlines—American, Delta, United, or Hawaiian Airlines—and they’ll typically
fly something a bit larger than other teams like a 767 or sometimes even a 777, but the
nature of this charter job makes finding a plane to take them particularly difficult. You see, let’s take the example of the New
York Jets’ last game of the 2018 season versus the New England Patriots on December
30th. For this game, they left the day before on
a United Airlines 767-400 at 3:37 pm landing 30 minutes later, at 4:07 pm, in Providence,
Rhode Island. The plane then sat on the ground at Providence
airport for the next 26 hours until the game was over. The following day, the plane took off at 6:30
pm bound for New York. The aircraft’s previous flight had been
to Buenos Aires and its next flight was to London and yet for these 26 hours, United
only made money from the half hour charter flight to and from Providence. It’s easy to understand why this wouldn’t
really be worth it to the airline, but at least the Jets are located next to a United
Airlines hub at Newark airport. Many teams, like the New Orleans Saints, for
example, are not located in a city with any airline hub. That makes finding an airline to take their
charter contract even more difficult. That’s because, for example, when the team
had to travel to Charlotte last season, the 767 that took them had to fly in empty from
Houston, the nearest United hub, then fly to Charlotte, sit on the ground for 33 hours,
fly back to New Orleans, then once again fly empty—this time all the way to New York. All told, for the 2 hours and 51 minutes of
flight time United was paid for, they used this airplane for about 44 hours. Being located away from an airline hub, where
planes are based, means charter flights will almost always require a plane flying in empty. It is for this reason that airlines are raising
rates or just flat-out stopping flying NFL teams as they find normal, commercial flying
a more lucrative use of their aircraft. American Airlines, in recent years, for example,
dropped all the many teams they previously flew except for the Carolina Falcons, the
Dallas Cowboys, and the Philadelphia Eagles—three teams located at their hub airports. More teams have moved their contract to dedicated
charter companies such as Atlas Air or Miami Air International, while the New England Patriots
even bought their own set of planes to solve this issue. Some other teams still have contracts with
commercial airlines but have switched to flying multiple smaller planes as these can be in
less demand. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, now typically
travel in two Delta 757’s leaving within a half hour of each other. Other American sports, such as Hockey, Baseball,
and Basketball, don’t have nearly as much of a problem because they play far more games
a season, which makes their contract a more attractive one to the airlines, and they also
typically use smaller aircraft of which there are more available. The NFL briefly considered investing in its
own fleet of aircraft or at least negotiating a deal with an airline in bulk, like the NBA
does with Delta, but for now, NFL teams are seeing their travel costs skyrocket as the
laws of supply and demand take hold. After losing their contract with American
Airlines, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars saw their travel costs double to $4 million
a year as they chartered an Atlas Air 747 and remember, those $4 million pay for the
travel costs to a mere eight away games. But the NFL’s most daunting logistics problem
is not this. Their most daunting logistics problem relates
to the NFL’s other big problem—expansion. You see, part of the reason the NFL is the
most valuable sports league in the world is because of how saturated the football market
is in the US. 57% of Americans identify as NFL fans. That’s an amazing level of market saturation
for what is, at its core, a business, but that also presents a problem because, with
such a high proportion of the population already fans, it’s quite difficult for the NFL to
expand their audience, at least within the US. In the past decade or so, the league has turned
its attention internationally. The NFL now plays regular season games in
Mexico City and London. These cities don’t have home teams but rather,
two teams from the US will come out and play. For the most part, these international games
are about promoting the sport in these two countries which already have significant fanbases
watching the sport on TV. There’s never been more than one game a
season in Mexico City but in London, in the 2019 season, they’re playing four regular
season games. With the 16 regular-season games per team
per year, any other city that has a resident NFL team typically only has eight home games
meaning London’s quantity is really not that far off. What’s more, the Jacksonville Jaguars are
designated as a sort of home team for London and therefore play at least one of their games
there each year in an attempt to give the city and country a clear team to root for. The league has even said that it plans to
eventually have a full eight games per season in London—the same as any home city in the
US. The reason there are now so many NFL games
in London is because the sport of American football has gained significant inroads in
the UK audience. The NFL estimates that it has 13 million fans
in the UK, 4 million of which watch regularly, and 47,000 of which buy games to every single
NFL game in the UK. Its dedication to the UK has become so significant
that it contributed $12.5 million to the construction of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north
London. This recently opened stadium was built to
become the home of the NFL in the UK. It has a permanent synthetic American football
pitch under its grass soccer field; purpose built, NFL-sized locker rooms; and a media
suite built to the preferences of NFL press. In the coming years, at least two NFL games
will occur each year at this stadium. Now, the logistics of these international
games in London are formidable. When the Seahawks played in London in 2018,
they had to ship 1,150 rolls of athletic tape, about 4,000 pounds or 1,800 kilograms of medical
supplies, 350 power adapters, 500 shoes, 240 pairs of socks, and tens of thousands of other
pounds of equipment to the city weeks ahead of their arrival. Months before, they had to arrange for many
of their players, who had never left the US, to get passports. The team’s trainers had to carefully schedule
their players sleep in the week leading up to reduce jet-lag. There’s even a hotel in Watford with a purpose
built American football practice pitch that the teams typically stay in. While these London matches come at great difficulty
and force teams to sacrifice a coveted home game, the teams and their owners seem to tolerate
them given their infrequency and the promise of the UK market. But the promise of the UK market could push
the NFL to stretch beyond eight international series games a year there. You see, there is some very real, very serious
discussion of putting a National Football League team in London. There is little doubt that the city and country
could support a team in terms of fanbase. The issue, according to the league’s commissioner,
would be having one solitary team stationed more than 3,000 miles or 5,000 kilometers
away from the next. It would be an immense logistics problem considering
that, for the weekly games, teams would have to take flights as long as eleven hours crossing
up to eight timezones. On the flip side, this London NFL team would
have to travel continuously throughout the US for weeks at a time since, practically,
it wouldn’t make sense for them to return to London between the weekly games. This would come at enormous expense, would
likely impact their performance, and prove unpopular with their players. In addition, as the UK does not yet have significant
American football talent, the majority of this teams players would come from the US
and would need to be persuaded, either monetarily or otherwise, to live outside their home country. Those are just some of the cost problems. Beyond that, it is not cheap to fly a whole
NFL team over the Atlantic every week. For the international series games, teams
were flown on chartered Virgin Atlantic 747 or a330’s arranged by the league, but if
London had a fully fledged NFL team, it would likely be treated just like any other team
meaning both them and their American competitors would have to arrange their own flights. The wide-body planes teams would have to charter
to cross the Atlantic come at a cost of up to $50,000 per flight hour. That means that transatlantic travel costs,
just in terms of the flight, would be anywhere between $650,000 for an east coast team or
up to a full $1 million for west coast teams. Teams also tend to carry tens of thousands
of pounds of cargo to each away game which would further escalate the cost. While such an expense would be little issue
for large, wealthy teams like the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots, teams with smaller
budgets like the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns would certainly have more of an issue
with potentially adding an extra million in travel costs. But this level of team isolation is not unprecedented. Further west, in the middle of the Pacific,
the University of Hawaii has a division one college football team—the Hawaii Rainbow
Warriors. The closest team in their conference is 2,600
miles or 4,200 kilometers away in San Diego. To get there, they take a five hour flight. That’s only an hour or two faster than it
would take a London NFL team to get to its closest competitor—the New England Patriots. While the furthest team in the Rainbow Warrior’s
conference is only a seven or eight hour flight away in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they do
play a number of non-conference games each year which take them all the way to the US
east coast—an up to 10 hour flight away from Honolulu which is almost exactly the
same as the longest required travel time for an NFL team to London. Not only that, but the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
also have to balance their time with class schedules which means that they travel to
their away games far closer to kickoff than NFL teams typically do to London. The Rainbow Warriors regularly rack up more
travel miles than any professional football team. For example, in one particularly grueling
month in 2016, the team started its season with an international match in Sydney, Australia,
then the next weekend played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then the weekend after that played
in Tucson, Arizona meaning they flew 25,000 miles or 40,000 kilometers in just one month. The Rainbow Warriors also make most of their
trips on commercial flights making their travel even more difficult than that of NFL teams. Now, this does potentially give the team a
more significant home-field advantage since they’re used to playing with jet lag while
their opponents, when they fly to Hawaii, would not be, but it also supports the view
that, logistically, it would be possible to add an NFL team in London. There are even professional sports leagues
that already regularly require travel over similar or greater distances. The Kontinental Hockey League, for example,
has teams spread out all across Asia and Eastern Europe meaning the teams from Beijing, Vladivostok,
Khabarovsk, and Beijing regularly have to travel more than 4,000 miles or 6,500 kilometers
to play the teams from Minsk, Riga, and Helsinki. An even more extreme example would be Super
Rugby which has teams spread out across Japan, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New
Zealand. With this, when the Tokyo Sunwolves play the
Buenos Aires Janguares, for example, they have to travel more than 11,000 miles or 18,000
kilometers each way to their match. Part of the NFL’s problem is just the pure
scale of their competitions with many tens of thousands of pounds of equipment and many
hundreds of staff traveling to each game. The problems are surmountable, though, at
a cost but this cost would be partially burdened by every other team in the league. The question is then, given the promise of
adding a whole new country to the league, is the cost worth it. Now, if the NFL expands to London, one of
the first things the new team will need is a logo. Luckily, there’s a class on Skillshare for
that. Professional animator Fraser Davidson, who
actually has done design work for the NFL, teaches this fantastic course which walks
you through the process of creating your own mascot. This is just one of over 25,000 classes on
Skillshare which each teach you something that you can use for your job, for school,
or just for fun. A few more that I would recommend are Storytelling
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