This NFL season has kicked off with more fanfare than ever before, and excitement for the sport isn't limited to the United States.
For the first time in the league's history there will be three regular-season games played abroad, all of them at Wembley Stadium in London. The games will come on Sept. 28 (Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins), Oct. 26 (Atlanta Falcons vs. Detroit Lions) and Nov. 9 (Dallas Cowboys vs. Jacksonville Jaguars).
As the NFL increases its footprint in Europe, it's only natural to wonder when it might it might look there for a permanent team. And, for that matter, whether it will even be the first North American sporting league to have a team on another continent.
Commissioner Roger Goodell in July said he thinks a team in London could be "five or ten years away," and that's a sentiment echoed by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
As amazing as it sounds, that may even be a conservative estimate. A FoxSports.com report from November 2013 suggested that a team could be in London by 2017. That team, which might be the Jaguars, would likely play its home games at Olympic Stadium. The NFL has made no secret that it is pushing the Jaguars, who have one of the smallest domestic fanbases, toward London. Jacksonville is in the second season of a four-year plan to play a game in London each year from 2013 to 2017.
"We want to create an identity, a bold, ambitious franchise that is aggressive and forward-thinking on the field and away from the field," Jaguards owner Shad Khan when the team announced the plan in 2012. "We want to be the kind of franchise players want to belong to, sponsors want to be part of, and Jacksonville is proud of. ... The key point is to sell Jacksonville to the world. We are a well-kept secret, but after today, that's not going to be the case."
Because of the NFL's short season (eight home games), a team in Europe seems more feasible than it would in the NBA or the MLB. But those leagues are as international-minded as the NFL, and former NBA commissioner David Stern has grand visions for multiple teams in Europe. Stern, who said there will be NBA teams in Europe within 20 years, dreamed of an international division in which teams in cities like London, Paris and Rome competed against each other.
Ambitious? Sure. But the NBA is growing at an unprecedented rate, and as evidenced by the expanding percentage of foreign players in the league, a European division might not be a pipe dream.
Even America's pastime, Major League Baseball, is looking beyond our borders. Commissioner Bud Selig is pushing regular season games in Europe, and an announcement of their whereabouts may be imminent:
Selig also is hopeful for an announcement soon of a MLB reg season game in Europe. Lg has eyed, London, Netherlands, among other areas
— Eric Fisher (@EricFisherSBJ) August 12, 2014
There are no shortage of hurdles for these leagues, including establishing foreign fanbases, fair competition and dealing with the cost and travails of long travel. But in terms of popularity and finances, these leagues are in unchartered territories. In that sense the foundation for a European franchise is already set, the only question that remains is when.