Shahid Khan’s Wembley offer one the FA can't refuse, but is a big gamble because the NFL are on his side

The FA would have been over the moon to receive Khan’s bid and the upside for the Jags owner is immense, but there is no doubt he is taking a risk in an attempt to head off rival franchises

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Friday 27 April 2018 07:14
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FA poised to sell Wembley Stadium in £800m deal with England set to go on the road

On the face of it, this offer is too good to refuse for the FA.

Wembley has long been a millstone for them, its lingering debt one of the reasons for hosting every England international and FA Cup semi-final there when fans - and indeed people inside the FA - favoured taking those games 'on the road'.

The big risk that the FA are running is that, should they decide to take Shahid Khan's offer, they would no longer have any choice in the matter. While an amicable arrangement is expected to be reached between Khan and the FA over use of the stadium, it would be the American and his company with the final say on scheduling. England would be going on the road as turfed-out vagrants rather than touring artists.

In practice, this is most likely to mean that England games in the autumn are at risk of being moved away from Wembley. Would anyone care, with the Emirates Stadium and Tottenham's new ground just around the corner or Old Trafford and the Etihad primed to step in? Probably not, but the FA know that cashing in is bound to upset traditionalists.

Offsetting that shouldn't be difficult if they promise to invest in grassroots football. That means significant investment, rather than the token gestures that so many are used to by now. A recent investigation into the state of grassroots football in England by The Independent found a sport in desperate need of help from above. Ensuring that happens would make the sale of the national stadium more palatable to all concerned.

But the most remarkable thing at play here really has nothing to do with the FA, for whom selling the ground makes a lot of financial sense. This is really a story about Shahid Khan, a billionaire on a mission and one taking an enormous risk.

Khan is understood to see Wembley as an events space with untapped potential. Everbank Field, the current home of his Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, has already seen a significant uptick in non-sporting events and concerts. You could expect the same for Wembley, but with bells on. The centre of one of the world's great metropolises is a far more attractive proposition than the Panhandle of Florida, even if the weather is far better and there is a transparent hot tub built into the stands.

Owning and operating Wembley purely as an events space would likely be a successful venture in its own right but what Khan truly craves is an NFL franchise in London, something he has made big strides towards by bringing the Jaguars to Britain for one home game a year every year since 2013. The Jags, hailing from one of the US' smallest media markets, has seen an enormous, barely believable growth in social media following since setting foot in London for the first time and Khan can see the dollar signs.

Fans watch the Jacksonville Jaguars from a pool installed at Everbank Field

The NFL are not just open to having a franchise in London, they're determined to do it. It will require some fiddling with the league's constitution, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), but that is already scheduled for 2021. The process of moving a team from one city to another is complex and often painful but the league has recently approved three such moves: the St. Louis Rams returning to Los Angeles in 2016, the San Diego Chargers moving to Los Angeles the next year and the Oakland Raiders heading to Las Vegas from 2019.

There are a boatload of extra regulatory difficulties to consider when moving a franchise outside US borders but the NFL have already conducted analyses of them all, including tax, visa and immigration issues. The only thing they can't test is whether a team in London could be (and stay) competitive when it comes to attracting free agent players and re-signing existing talent. That's a lesson they'll have to learn the hard way.

The NFL's statement implies that a London franchise would likely split its games between Tottenham's new stadium, which was designed with the NFL in mind, as well as Wembley. "Having stadium options in London has always been critical to the NFL and, in tandem with our 10-year partnership with Tottenham Hotspur, this new relationship would allow for even greater flexibility in scheduling future NFL games in London," it says. But the agreement with Spurs runs out in 2028. They - and Chelsea, who had planned on playing at least one season while Stamford Bridge is redeveloped - will be watching keenly as events unfold.

The Jaguars have made Wembley a second home

Should Khan, as expected, apply for relocation from Jacksonville to London down the line then it would go to a vote of NFL owners. Now, telling a room full of billionaires that you're going to make them more money usually gets the trick done and this is likely to be no different, but Khan might be counting his chickens somewhat by bidding such a huge amount of money for a stadium when he can have no guarantee that the Jaguars would be chosen to move to London ahead of rivals.

Hypothetically, imagine that the CBA is amended to allow a franchise to move to London and suddenly the faltering Buffalo Bills decided they quite fancied making a load more money as a British franchise, linking up with Tottenham Hotspur to put together a more attractive proposition for relocation. What if Manchester United's owners offered a tie-up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that brought the Bucs to the UK but with the added marketing clout of the world's biggest football club? When it comes to relocation - as happened with rival bids to move to LA - the only thing that appears to matter to owners is the bottom line.

One NFL source told The Independent last year not to take a Jags move to London for granted - "other teams have been sniffing" - and said on Thursday morning that the key might be Khan bidding for Wembley "simply so no other team could put together a proposal to go there."

In effect, this bid may prove to be a huge attempt to try and head off competition for bringing an NFL franchise to London.

So while Khan is undoubtedly favourite to buy the stadium, move an NFL franchise there in the coming years and continue to make a fortune by using Wembley as an events space and occasional FA venue, nothing is set in stone. It is a potentially huge outlay with, as of yet, no guaranteed return.

This is a risk, but a risk that would make Khan one of the most influential sporting figures in Britain and America should it pay off.

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