By Pete Baxter
The expansion of the National Football League beyond its current 32 teams is inevitable. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk wrote Tuesday that he is hearing that “conversations about possibly growing to 40 teams are already happening, at the highest levels of the league.”
While the 40-team mark is certainly a long-term goal, it absolutely makes sense. The NFL has powered through the Covid-19 pandemic and remains as economically viable as ever. According to Statista.com, the 32 teams of the NFL brought in a total of $12.2 billion in revenue in 2020. This was a drop from a less Covid-impacted 2019 total of $15 billion but was still more than the National Basketball Association ($7.92 billion) and Major League Baseball ($3.66 billion) combined last year.
The most basic math for the NFL to continue their growth in America and beyond is simple. More games means more money. The first step was to increase the NFL regular season to 17 games. An 18-game season appears to be on the horizon. However, you can only expect human beings to survive the intensity and the physical toll of professional football for so many games a year. Therefore, more teams are required to further increase the possible quantity of games and thus the possible revenue for the league.
The First Step
In the short term, likely within the next five to ten years at most, we will see the league add two teams. Keeping the league at an even number of franchises keeps the conferences equal, maximizing fairness and parity as far as playoff seeding is concerned. The NBA typically does the same, as with the Vancouver/Toronto expansion in 1995.
So, should the league move forward with expansion, what are the most likely cities to get a brand-new NFL franchise? Let’s take a look at the five most likely destinations:
#1: St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis has jumped to the top of the list in light of recent developments in the city’s pending lawsuit against the NFL for the enormous financial damages allegedly incurred following the abrupt relocation of the Rams to Los Angeles. As PFT’s Mike Florio reported in October, the “possibility of an expansion team as part of a potential settlement of the case has been floated in league circles.”
The city proved they had the means and the fanbase to support an NFL franchise for twenty years from 1995 to 2015. The city itself has a modest population of just over 300,000 but the greater, bi-state metro area boasts a population of 2.8 million. The city still has an NFL stadium in the The Dome at America’s Center, which boasts a capacity of 67,277 for football games.
Bringing a new franchise to St. Louis could prove to be a successful financial endeavor for both the city and league. It could save the league from an unimaginable financial cost should the lawsuit end badly.
This just makes too much sense for all parties involved.
#2: San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio is too big a city and potential market to avoid an NFL franchise for long. The seventh largest city in the nation and second largest in Texas, San Antonio has a population of 1.4 million (though the metro area has a relatively modest 2.6 million people). However, San Antonio is just 80 miles away from another massive, growing urban area in Austin. Austin boasts a population of over 960,000 with a metro area population of 2.2 million. Austin residents would likely flock to their closest neighbor city to catch a pro game.
San Antonio has never had an NFL franchise to call their own, but they did have the most successful team in the Alliance of American Football (I know, but it’s something). The averaged 27,720 butts in the seats in their four games at the Alamodome. The city was also supposedly in the running for landing the Raiders before they settled on Las Vegas as their new home.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg has stated repeatedly that he strongly believes “San Antonio is an NFL city within 10 years.” Texas is perhaps the biggest football state in the country, and San Antonio is a highly underrated sports town. Sounds like a natural fit.
#3: London, England
The city of London, England has already hosted at least two NFL games per season since 2013. English fans have responded with feverish passion to American Football and have had no problem filling stadiums to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and others. NFL games in London regular exceed 80,000 in attendance (84,771 on November 3 of last year).
The city has a massive population of nearly nine million with a staggering metro area population of over 14 million. It already has several NFL-ready stadiums, namely Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (with a capacity of 62,850), Wembley Arena (86,000), and Twickenham Stadium (75,000 for football).
With those numbers, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to plant a team permanently in England. However, the logistics make it a bit more challenging. London is in a totally different time zone, five hours ahead of New York City. It is a seven-hour flight from even the closest American NFL cities. It is as much as a 10-to-11-hour flight nonstop from the West Coast.
However, when there is this much money to be made, the NFL will find a way to make it work. It is no secret that the NFL is extremely motivated to expand the brand internationally, and London is a logical first step in terms of expansion.
#4: Chicago, Illinois
The two largest cities in the United States, New York and Los Angeles, both have two NFL franchises to call their own. Chicago, the third largest city in the nation, and already home to two MLB franchises, could be next.
The Chicago Bears boast one of the largest, most widespread fan bases in the country. Chicago has a population of nearly 2.8 million and metro area population of nearly 10 million, plenty big enough for two teams.
The Bears currently play at Soldier Field, the oldest stadium in the NFL, but appear headed to a new stadium in Arlington Heights in the near future. Could this open up Soldier Field for a brand-new franchise? Or would the new, state-of-the-art stadium in the suburbs host both squads?
Like St. Louis, this could potentially be an easy move for the league, as the infrastructure is already in place for a team to move in. There is no question that Chicago has the population and the interest to support a second team.
#5: Toronto, Ontario
The NBA made a highly successful move into Toronto in 1995. The Toronto Raptors are consistently near the top in league attendance (third so far this season) and Toronto is clearly a massive sports market.
Toronto is the third largest city between the United States and Canada, with a population of 2.7 million and a metro area population of over six million.
The Buffalo Bills have played games in Toronto in the past (between 2008 and 2012) and there were even rumors of relocation talks for the team at that time. The city is home to a CFL franchise, the Toronto Argonauts. Unfortunately, the CFL stadium (BMO field) is far too small to support an NFL franchise (with a capacity of just 25,000 for football). The NFL requires a minimum capacity of at least 60,000. A new stadium would be a must.
There are several more cities that have no doubt been brought up in NFL meetings. However, these are likely longer-term projects as we approach the 40-team mark over the coming decades.
Mexico City, with its massive population of over nine million (an astounding metro area population of 21,804,515), the largest in North America, no doubt has the NFL’s mouth watering. Due to Covid, a pair of Arizona Cardinals games planned to be played in Mexico’s capital this season were cancelled. However, games have been played there in the past as part of the International Series and saw amazing attendance figures of 100,000+ for the events at Estadio Azteca. It is less than a four-hour flight from Miami. However, much progress would need to be made in guaranteeing player safety as crime continues to be a major concern within Mexico, and the language barrier (among other factors) could dissuade players from choosing Mexico as their preferred free agency destination. That said, there is too much money available in this massive market to avoid getting a team someday in the future.
San Diego and Oakland both saw their teams get ripped away from them over the past half decade. Surprisingly, it is widely reported that the league was not initially in favor of either of these relocations. Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense that both of these cities will have an NFL franchise to call their own once again in the future.
In the End
The NFL will always follow the money. More NFL cities means more teams. More teams means more games. More games means more revenue. There is no question we will see the league expand within the next decade. Based on vocal interest within the city and past interest from the league, I would place my bets on St. Louis and San Antonio getting the first two expansion franchises.
I would also fully expect London to be part of the next round, as despite the logistical challenges, the league seems hell-bent on making an English team work.
Is your city on the list?