What Would NFL Expansion Cost, and Who Pays for It?

October 14, 20224 min read
What Would NFL Expansion Cost, and Who Pays for It?
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This past weekend, the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers in a thrilling London match-up that made headlines and excited fans. But perhaps even more thrilling for fans of the sport were comments made by commissioner Roger Goodell that he believes that London could support not one, but two NFL teams. He further teased that there could be a European division with up to four teams. 

While the NFL has made significant efforts to bring the game to an international audience – including additional games in Mexico City and Germany this year, finding a way to maintain the structure of the divisions means that any expansion would require the league to expand in pairs. 

It’s been over twenty years since the last expansion teams — the Texans in 2002 paid a record $700M at the time — but if it were to happen now, here are a few of the major considerations that would go into the process.

Though expansion would no doubt be exciting and rearrange the entire fabric of the league, it isn’t always a surefire bet and needs to be made with careful considerations. It’s a complicated – and often lengthy – process that requires approval from the current owners,  who may not be as eager as expected. Here’s why it’s not as straightforward as expected.  

The Buy-In – What would a new team cost?

Before you start fantasizing about booking a European getaway to see your favorite team, the first step to any expansion is that an owner, or more likely an ownership group given the rising cost of franchises – need to buy in with a one time fee, which is usually split evenly among the current team owners. One reason for this is that the league currently splits television revenue evenly across teams – an innovation thanks to a few Giants owners with foresight in the 1960s  – and moving forward, that expected revenue split will presumably be even smaller if it’s divided by an additional number of teams. 

While this may seem easy to avoid with additional games to broadcast and sell advertising against, it isn’t just as simple as adding an additional slate of games on a new night of the week. To ensure scheduling consistency, it will likely mean additional games set up against the current slate of match-ups, which could potentially decrease the revenue number further. While a European league – and additional audiences and times to broadcast games – could help make this up, it’s still best navigated by adding in a one-time fee to current owners at first to offset that cost. The good news in a global media hub like London, that fee might be a several billion dollar sum. 

But it isn’t just initial revenue that teams are worried about as these new teams get settled, it’s about the overall quality of the league. 

Roster Building — The Expansion Draft

Of course, another important consideration when factoring in additional teams is talent dilution. While certain teams can look to flounder in the era of 30 teams, trying to field a roster of 2-4 additional 53 man rosters could seriously hurt the product – i.e. a competitive roster that folks want to watch. One way that leagues like the NBA and NHL  have counteracted this in the past is with expansion drafts. The Seattle Kraken in 2018 were a recent example of this, where the league dictates a certain number of players on their roster they can keep, with others made available for the draft that the new team is able to select. They were approved in 2018, but didn’t get to play until the 2021-22 season. Just a few years prior, the Las Vegas Golden Knights (who were approved in 2016 for the 2017-18 season) were added to the league, and made the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season. 

While other websites have done a fantastic job breaking down the qualifiers that NFL teams might use to choose which players they make eligible, you can expect that they won’t boast a roster of all-stars within their first few years. The Texans struggled for several years, and this is set against the league becoming much more competitive in the last few decades. 

All to say, the league has a long way to go before fans can start planning a European tour to check out new teams. In the past, search committees have taken several years – if not longer – to finalize bids, construct their roster, and finally see their team take the field. Would it be a good investment, or would the initial purchase fee, potentially followed by decades of toiling at the bottom of the league with low attendance not be the best investment for an ownership group to stomach? Whatever the case, you can bet that it’ll be an exciting new chapter for the league with eyes on a global audience. 

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While certain leagues have set up rules (e.g. the NBA doesn’t allow institutional ownership of more than 30% in a single team, with a maximum of 20% ownership for one fund) there are nonetheless funds for professional investors targeting opportunities in sports leagues familiar and emerging. Who knows – maybe an investment in a fund like that could potentially set your family up for generations of success. 

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