American Football: NFL arrives toting seductive ideas
Wembley showpiece prompts fear that Premier League's American owners may import no-relegation rule
The National Football League returns to London this evening as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium in the fifth "International Series" regular-season game. The now-annual showpiece is seen by some as proof that the Premier League's "39th game" proposal could work, and several other ideas pioneered by the NFL, which is regarded as the model of a successful, thriving competition, are reported to be under consideration. The experiences of the two teams who meet tonight show why one idea's time has come and another's – it is to be hoped – never will.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bouncing back in style
America loves winners and hates losers, but at least NFL teams who lose consistently are not punished by relegation. The owners of the 32 NFL franchises never have to confront the prospect of reduced gates and television incomes – which is why some Premier League owners would like to abandon relegation in order to safeguard their considerable investments.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last appeared at Wembley, in 2009, they were one of the worst teams in the NFL and were lucky to escape with a 35-7 drubbing by the New England Patriots. But despite finishing at the foot of the NFC South that season, they knew they could rebuild without having to descend into a lower league, with no guarantee of a return.
Today they are a vibrant side on the way up, led by the quarterback Josh Freeman, one of the most exciting young players in the game. Could, say, Wigan Athletic do something similar if the Premier League were a closed shop? The trouble with using the NFL as a template is the difficulty of comparing like with unlike. Americans know that consumers will not pay to see foregone conclusions, and so have evolved an almost communist system that is designed to ensure competitive balance.
Instead of having to sell Freeman to survive, by finishing last Tampa Bay guaranteed themselves an early pick in the annual draft of college graduates in 2010, enabling them to strengthen in weak positions. And their fixture list became easier, as they played more teams who finished in similarly low places in other divisions.
Nor did they have to worry about matching the wages offered by more successful teams. The television revenues that fund player wages are split evenly between the 32 franchises, and a salary cap ensured that the Buccaneers could not be outspent by teams from bigger markets.
The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in that 2009-10 season, a year after finishing bottom of Tampa Bay's division. But whereas an NFL team can go from worst to first, in the free-market capitalism of the Premier League the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Wigan would be free from one worry in a Premier League with no relegation but, unlike the Buccaneers, they would not be helped to challenge Manchester United and the rest by the League's structures. No wonder Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner, threatened to pull his club out of a Premier League that banned relegation. Take away the fight to stay up and half the teams in the top tier would have nothing left to play for.
Chicago Bears: Leading by example
There are no black managers in the Premier League and only two in the Football League, Chris Hughton of Birmingham City and Chris Powell of Charlton. A decade ago, the NFL also faced the under-representation of ethnic minorities. Their answer was the Rooney Rule, proposed in 2002 by Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and now under consideration here.
Rooney wanted every shortlist for a head-coach position to include a minority candidate – the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2009 under the leadership of a black head coach, Mike Tomlin. But although his employers had first lobbied for the change, Tomlin was not the first beneficiary. On the day Tomlin was appointed in 2007, Lovie Smith led the Chicago Bears into the Super Bowl.
Smith was appointed in 2004, soon after the Rooney Rule was adopted. His team lost the 2007 Super Bowl to the Indianapolis Colts and he had a rough couple of seasons thereafter, but he was a candidate for coach of the season last year as the Bears came within one game of returning to the end-of-season showpiece and he was recently given a five-year contract extension. Raheem Morris of the Buccaneers, who will patrol the opposite touchline tonight, followed five years later. Both have justified their place.
"If you need the Rooney Rule, it should be in play," Smith says. "You have to look at the culture at that time in that sport. Everyone wants an opportunity to prove what you can do, that you can handle the job. If you can't do that just on your own then you need rules in place. I used that vehicle to get the job, although we'd all like to think that eventually if you do a good job you should get an opportunity based on what you're doing as a coach."
He rejects suggestions that the rule represents tokenism. "Getting you in front of [an employer] is a big step, but from there the Rooney Rule isn't getting you a job."
It could be argued that the rule is no longer needed. "I think in our sport you can make a case for that," Smith said. "If you asked me how many African-American head coaches there are in NFL football right now I couldn't tell you. It isn't a big deal any more.
"Once you get into the sport you are judged by what's happening on the football field and what you're doing. When we screw up I think the fans scream at me based on me being a head coach instead of my colour."
Sky Sports will show 57 NFL games this season, including Tampa Bay v Chicago at Wembley tonight, 6pm. Tickets from: ticketmaster.co.uk/nfl
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