The NFL’s Logistics Problem

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This video was made possible by Skillshare. Learn from over 25,000 classes for free fortwo months at skl.sh/wendover6. No sports league in the world makes more moneythan the American National Football League. The NFL earns more yearly revenue than theEnglish Premier League, the Champions League, Formula One, the Japanese Nippon ProfessionalBaseball League, and the Kontinental Hockey League combined. It is by far the largest sports league inthe world by revenue. Making up the NFL are 32 football teams eachthemselves essentially acting as their own distinct businesses. These teams are spread out all across thecontiguous United States—some only 30 miles or 45 kilometers apart from each other, somenearly 3,000 miles or 4,500 kilometers apart. Now, American football teams are some of thelargest in sports, both physically and in numbers.

They have a roster of 56 players—the majorityof which play in any given game. These players weigh on average about 250 poundsor 110 kilograms. This team size leads to some particular travelneeds. 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 upfar more than 56 seats. On top of that, a team typically brings morethan 100 support staff and an immense amount of cargo to each away game. With the exception of the largest, most valuableones, most other professional sports teams in the US will just fly on chartered narrow-bodyaircraft like a320’s, 737’s, or 757’s, but most NFL teams, given their size, requiresomething larger. NFL teams tend to charter their aircraft fromcommercial airlines—American, Delta, United, or Hawaiian Airlines—and they’ll typicallyfly something a bit larger than other teams like a 767 or sometimes even a 777, but thenature of this charter job makes finding a plane to take them particularly difficult. You see, let’s take the example of the NewYork Jets’ last game of the 2018 season versus the New England Patriots on December30th.

For this game, they left the day before ona 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 Providenceairport for the next 26 hours until the game was over. The following day, the plane took off at 6:30pm bound for New York. The aircraft’s previous flight had beento Buenos Aires and its next flight was to London and yet for these 26 hours, Unitedonly made money from the half hour charter flight to and from Providence. It’s easy to understand why this wouldn’treally be worth it to the airline, but at least the Jets are located next to a UnitedAirlines hub at Newark airport. Many teams, like the New Orleans Saints, forexample, are not located in a city with any airline hub. That makes finding an airline to take theircharter contract even more difficult. That’s because, for example, when the teamhad to travel to Charlotte last season, the 767 that took them had to fly in empty fromHouston, 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 offlight time United was paid for, they used this airplane for about 44 hours.

Being located away from an airline hub, whereplanes are based, means charter flights will almost always require a plane flying in empty. It is for this reason that airlines are raisingrates or just flat-out stopping flying NFL teams as they find normal, commercial flyinga 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, theDallas Cowboys, and the Philadelphia Eagles—three teams located at their hub airports. More teams have moved their contract to dedicatedcharter companies such as Atlas Air or Miami Air International, while the New England Patriotseven bought their own set of planes to solve this issue. Some other teams still have contracts withcommercial airlines but have switched to flying multiple smaller planes as these can be inless demand.

The Indianapolis Colts, for example, now typicallytravel 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 gamesa season, which makes their contract a more attractive one to the airlines, and they alsotypically use smaller aircraft of which there are more available. The NFL briefly considered investing in itsown fleet of aircraft or at least negotiating a deal with an airline in bulk, like the NBAdoes with Delta, but for now, NFL teams are seeing their travel costs skyrocket as thelaws of supply and demand take hold. After losing their contract with AmericanAirlines, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars saw their travel costs double to $4 milliona year as they chartered an Atlas Air 747 and remember, those $4 million pay for thetravel costs to a mere eight away games.

But the NFL’s most daunting logistics problemis not this. Their most daunting logistics problem relatesto the NFL’s other big problem—expansion. You see, part of the reason the NFL is themost valuable sports league in the world is because of how saturated the football marketis in the US. 57% of Americans identify as NFL fans. That’s an amazing level of market saturationfor what is, at its core, a business, but that also presents a problem because, withsuch a high proportion of the population already fans, it’s quite difficult for the NFL toexpand their audience, at least within the US. In the past decade or so, the league has turnedits attention internationally. The NFL now plays regular season games inMexico 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 gamesare about promoting the sport in these two countries which already have significant fanbaseswatching the sport on TV. There’s never been more than one game aseason in Mexico City but in London, in the 2019 season, they’re playing four regularseason games. With the 16 regular-season games per teamper year, any other city that has a resident NFL team typically only has eight home gamesmeaning London’s quantity is really not that far off.

What’s more, the Jacksonville Jaguars aredesignated as a sort of home team for London and therefore play at least one of their gamesthere 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 toeventually have a full eight games per season in London—the same as any home city in theUS. The reason there are now so many NFL gamesin London is because the sport of American football has gained significant inroads inthe UK audience. The NFL estimates that it has 13 million fansin the UK, 4 million of which watch regularly, and 47,000 of which buy games to every singleNFL game in the UK. Its dedication to the UK has become so significantthat it contributed $12.5 million to the construction of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in northLondon. This recently opened stadium was built tobecome the home of the NFL in the UK. It has a permanent synthetic American footballpitch under its grass soccer field; purpose built, NFL-sized locker rooms; and a mediasuite built to the preferences of NFL press.

In the coming years, at least two NFL gameswill occur each year at this stadium. Now, the logistics of these internationalgames 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 medicalsupplies, 350 power adapters, 500 shoes, 240 pairs of socks, and tens of thousands of otherpounds of equipment to the city weeks ahead of their arrival. Months before, they had to arrange for manyof their players, who had never left the US, to get passports. The team’s trainers had to carefully scheduletheir players sleep in the week leading up to reduce jet-lag. There’s even a hotel in Watford with a purposebuilt American football practice pitch that the teams typically stay in. While these London matches come at great difficultyand force teams to sacrifice a coveted home game, the teams and their owners seem to toleratethem given their infrequency and the promise of the UK market. But the promise of the UK market could pushthe NFL to stretch beyond eight international series games a year there. You see, there is some very real, very seriousdiscussion of putting a National Football League team in London.

There is little doubt that the city and countrycould 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 kilometersaway from the next. It would be an immense logistics problem consideringthat, for the weekly games, teams would have to take flights as long as eleven hours crossingup to eight timezones. On the flip side, this London NFL team wouldhave 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, wouldlikely impact their performance, and prove unpopular with their players. In addition, as the UK does not yet have significantAmerican football talent, the majority of this teams players would come from the USand 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 wholeNFL team over the Atlantic every week. For the international series games, teamswere flown on chartered Virgin Atlantic 747 or a330’s arranged by the league, but ifLondon had a fully fledged NFL team, it would likely be treated just like any other teammeaning both them and their American competitors would have to arrange their own flights. The wide-body planes teams would have to charterto 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 orup to a full $1 million for west coast teams. Teams also tend to carry tens of thousandsof pounds of cargo to each away game which would further escalate the cost. While such an expense would be little issuefor large, wealthy teams like the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots, teams with smallerbudgets like the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns would certainly have more of an issuewith 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 RainbowWarriors. The closest team in their conference is 2,600miles 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 itwould take a London NFL team to get to its closest competitor—the New England Patriots. While the furthest team in the Rainbow Warrior’sconference is only a seven or eight hour flight away in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they doplay a number of non-conference games each year which take them all the way to the USeast coast—an up to 10 hour flight away from Honolulu which is almost exactly thesame as the longest required travel time for an NFL team to London. Not only that, but the Hawaii Rainbow Warriorsalso have to balance their time with class schedules which means that they travel totheir away games far closer to kickoff than NFL teams typically do to London.

The Rainbow Warriors regularly rack up moretravel miles than any professional football team. For example, in one particularly gruelingmonth 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 playedin Tucson, Arizona meaning they flew 25,000 miles or 40,000 kilometers in just one month. The Rainbow Warriors also make most of theirtrips on commercial flights making their travel even more difficult than that of NFL teams. Now, this does potentially give the team amore significant home-field advantage since they’re used to playing with jet lag whiletheir opponents, when they fly to Hawaii, would not be, but it also supports the viewthat, logistically, it would be possible to add an NFL team in London. There are even professional sports leaguesthat 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 kilometersto play the teams from Minsk, Riga, and Helsinki. An even more extreme example would be SuperRugby which has teams spread out across Japan, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and NewZealand.

With this, when the Tokyo Sunwolves play theBuenos Aires Janguares, for example, they have to travel more than 11,000 miles or 18,000kilometers each way to their match. Part of the NFL’s problem is just the purescale of their competitions with many tens of thousands of pounds of equipment and manyhundreds of staff traveling to each game. The problems are surmountable, though, ata cost but this cost would be partially burdened by every other team in the league. The question is then, given the promise ofadding a whole new country to the league, is the cost worth it. Now, if the NFL expands to London, one ofthe first things the new team will need is a logo. Luckily, there’s a class on Skillshare forthat. Professional animator Fraser Davidson, whoactually has done design work for the NFL, teaches this fantastic course which walksyou through the process of creating your own mascot. This is just one of over 25,000 classes onSkillshare 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 Storytelling101, the Productivity Masterclass, and Cinematography Basics, all of which you can download offlineon the iOS or Android apps. You can learn from any of these more than25,000 classes for free for a month by signing up at skl.sh/wendover6 and you’ll be supportingthe show while you’re at it.

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