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London calling


The NFL’s 100th anniversary season hasn’t gone as planned. This season’s festivities have been undermined by a series of unhelpful storylines, including teams tanking, star quarterbacks getting injured or retiring, the tedious Antonio Brown circus, and officiating so dreadful it has drawn the scorn of the league’s most famous player, Tom Brady. Roger Goodell, the Incredible Shrinking Commissioner, has been AWOL during these firestorms.

So why not drop another clunker on this junk pile of an NFL season?

The latest subplot came last week, when the Athletic published a highly speculative report that the itinerant Los Angeles Chargers, fresh off a move up the coast from San Diego, were weighing a possible relocation to London. Chargers owner Dean Spanos issued an adamant and profane denial, but the story has legs, in large part because it fits a long-running NFL narrative.

The NFL has been trying to establish a foothold in Europe for the past three decades. From 1991 to 2007, it operated a developmental league, NFL Europe, each spring. But European fans wanted the real thing, so in 2007, NFL teams began playing occasional games in England. Goodell has spoken openly for the past decade about his desire to put at least one NFL team in Europe, and he’s received backing for the idea from prominent NFL owners.

With its 16-game schedule, the NFL is better positioned than the MLB and NBA to establish a beachhead in Europe. But it still feels like a pipe dream. The NFL has never adequately explained how a U.K.-based team would overcome financial and logistical hurdles.

Start with taxes. This season, NFL players are subject to a 37% federal tax rate. Under current laws and international treaties, if a team was based in London, players would be staring at an additional 45% tax hit from the United Kingdom.

How would that play out in the real world? In a 2017 analysis, Brett Smith noted that a London-based NFL player might be able to mitigate the double-taxation whammy via a foreign tax exclusion under which he would pay only the higher rate. For example, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’s salary this season is $23 million. If he had played this season in the U.K. and used the tax exclusion, he’d be on the hook for $10,350,000 to the royals, nearly $2 million more than the $8,510,000 he would have owed in U.S. taxes. Moreover, Smith wrote, taxes on endorsements “will increase dramatically” for players based in London.

A creative accountant probably could soften the blow, but the financial hit alone guarantees that the prospective London Chargers would be at the bottom of free agents’ wish lists. The NFL might try to level the playing field by seeking a foreign tax exemption, but that inevitably would invite the usual “ugly Americans” patter from the Jeremy Corbyn wing of Parliament.

Then come the logistical hurdles. Consider this: The longest current NFL commute is from Seattle to Miami, a 5½-hour flight across three time zones. That’s two hours and two time zones less than the shortest commute that a London-based team would face returning to the mainland to play New England. The added travel time inevitably would cut into game preparations, putting a London franchise at a competitive disadvantage. The NFL has suggested establishing a satellite facility for a London team in the southeastern United States, but Atlanta is still a 10-hour flight from London.

Here’s the odd thing: None of this is news to the shrewd NFL executives who oversee America’s preeminent sports enterprise. They’ve done all the math, war-gamed the various scenarios. They know all of the drawbacks associated with placing a team in London. And yet they persist, aware of the fact that the NFL would, at best, be a sporting curiosity in a land dominated by Premier League soccer.

Then again, for the Chargers, who have never won a Super Bowl and now toil in anonymity in a small soccer stadium, perhaps it’s better to be a curiosity in London than a nonentity in Los Angeles.

Martin Kaufmann has covered sports for more than two decades, including the past 16 years as senior editor at Golfweek.