The NFL's Logistics Problem

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    Delta 757 video courtesy PDX Aviation



    This video was made possible by Skillshare. Learn from over 25,000 classes for free for two months at No sports league in the world makes more money than the American National Football League. The NFL earns more yearly revenue than the English Premier League, the Champions League, Formula One, the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League, and the Kontinental Hockey League combined. It is by far the largest sports league in the world by revenue. Making up the NFL are 32 football teams each themselves essentially acting as their own distinct businesses. These teams are spread out all across the contiguous United States—some only 30 miles or 45 kilometers apart from each other, some nearly 3,000 miles or 4,500 kilometers apart. Now, American football teams are some of the largest in sports, both physically and in numbers. They have a roster of 56 players—the majority of which play in any given game. These players weigh on average about 250 pounds or 110 kilograms. This team size leads to some particular travel needs. 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 up far more than 56 seats. On top of that, a team typically brings more than 100 support staff and an immense amount of cargo to each away game. With the exception of the largest, most valuable ones, most other professional sports teams in the US will just fly on chartered narrow-body aircraft like a320’s, 737’s, or 757’s, but most NFL teams, given their size, require something larger. NFL teams tend to charter their aircraft from commercial airlines—American, Delta, United, or Hawaiian Airlines—and they’ll typically fly something a bit larger than other teams like a 767 or sometimes even a 777, but the nature of this charter job makes finding a plane to take them particularly difficult. You see, let’s take the example of the New York Jets’ last game of the 2018 season versus the New England Patriots on December 30th. For this game, they left the day before on a 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 Providence airport for the next 26 hours until the game was over. The following day, the plane took off at 6:30 pm bound for New York. The aircraft’s previous flight had been to Buenos Aires and its next flight was to London and yet for these 26 hours, United only made money from the half hour charter flight to and from Providence. It’s easy to understand why this wouldn’t really be worth it to the airline, but at least the Jets are located next to a United Airlines hub at Newark airport. Many teams, like the New Orleans Saints, for example, are not located in a city with any airline hub. That makes finding an airline to take their charter contract even more difficult. That’s because, for example, when the team had to travel to Charlotte last season, the 767 that took them had to fly in empty from Houston, 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 of flight time United was paid for, they used this airplane for about 44 hours. Being located away from an airline hub, where planes are based, means charter flights will almost always require a plane flying in empty. It is for this reason that airlines are raising rates or just flat-out stopping flying NFL teams as they find normal, commercial flying a 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, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Philadelphia Eagles—three teams located at their hub airports. More teams have moved their contract to dedicated charter companies such as Atlas Air or Miami Air International, while the New England Patriots even bought their own set of planes to solve this issue. Some other teams still have contracts with commercial airlines but have switched to flying multiple smaller planes as these can be in less demand. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, now typically travel 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 games a season, which makes their contract a more attractive one to the airlines, and they also typically use smaller aircraft of which there are more available. The NFL briefly considered investing in its own fleet of aircraft or at least negotiating a deal with an airline in bulk, like the NBA does with Delta, but for now, NFL teams are seeing their travel costs skyrocket as the laws of supply and demand take hold. After losing their contract with American Airlines, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars saw their travel costs double to $4 million a year as they chartered an Atlas Air 747 and remember, those $4 million pay for the travel costs to a mere eight away games. But the NFL’s most daunting logistics problem is not this. Their most daunting logistics problem relates to the NFL’s other big problem—expansion. You see, part of the reason the NFL is the most valuable sports league in the world is because of how saturated the football market is in the US. 57% of Americans identify as NFL fans. That’s an amazing level of market saturation for what is, at its core, a business, but that also presents a problem because, with such a high proportion of the population already fans, it’s quite difficult for the NFL to expand their audience, at least within the US. In the past decade or so, the league has turned its attention internationally. The NFL now plays regular season games in Mexico 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 games are about promoting the sport in these two countries which already have significant fanbases watching the sport on TV. There’s never been more than one game a season in Mexico City but in London, in the 2019 season, they’re playing four regular season games. With the 16 regular-season games per team per year, any other city that has a resident NFL team typically only has eight home games meaning London’s quantity is really not that far off. What’s more, the Jacksonville Jaguars are designated as a sort of home team for London and therefore play at least one of their games there 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 to eventually have a full eight games per season in London—the same as any home city in the US. The reason there are now so many NFL games in London is because the sport of American football has gained significant inroads in the UK audience. The NFL estimates that it has 13 million fans in the UK, 4 million of which watch regularly, and 47,000 of which buy games to every single NFL game in the UK. Its dedication to the UK has become so significant that it contributed $12.5 million to the construction of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London. This recently opened stadium was built to become the home of the NFL in the UK. It has a permanent synthetic American football pitch under its grass soccer field; purpose built, NFL-sized locker rooms; and a media suite built to the preferences of NFL press. In the coming years, at least two NFL games will occur each year at this stadium. Now, the logistics of these international games 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 medical supplies, 350 power adapters, 500 shoes, 240 pairs of socks, and tens of thousands of other pounds of equipment to the city weeks ahead of their arrival. Months before, they had to arrange for many of their players, who had never left the US, to get passports. The team’s trainers had to carefully schedule their players sleep in the week leading up to reduce jet-lag. There’s even a hotel in Watford with a purpose built American football practice pitch that the teams typically stay in. While these London matches come at great difficulty and force teams to sacrifice a coveted home game, the teams and their owners seem to tolerate them given their infrequency and the promise of the UK market. But the promise of the UK market could push the NFL to stretch beyond eight international series games a year there. You see, there is some very real, very serious discussion of putting a National Football League team in London. There is little doubt that the city and country could 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 kilometers away from the next. It would be an immense logistics problem considering that, for the weekly games, teams would have to take flights as long as eleven hours crossing up to eight timezones. On the flip side, this London NFL team would have 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, would likely impact their performance, and prove unpopular with their players. In addition, as the UK does not yet have significant American football talent, the majority of this teams players would come from the US and 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 whole NFL team over the Atlantic every week. For the international series games, teams were flown on chartered Virgin Atlantic 747 or a330’s arranged by the league, but if London had a fully fledged...
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