Sadiq Khan is flirting with the NFL – but the romance might not be all rosy

A 2015 game between Miami Dolphins and New York Jets at Wembley Stadium. Image: Getty.

Quietly ruminating, and politically savvy as ever, the mayor of London has been enjoying a hushed round of successes. And in an attempt to build on the successes of the Olympics in 2012 – and as a way to learn from the missed opportunities of those games – Sadiq Khan has set about making London “the sporting capital of the world”.

It’s important to say that his motivations for this are as much personal as political.

“I’ve always loved sport,” he said a few months ago in an interview with ESPN. “I was a keen cricketer, footballer and boxer, and it’s been an important part of my life. I ran in the London Marathon, the best marathon in the world, in 2014 and got fit, lost weight, improved stress level and ran in the same race as Mo Farah.”

Sport matters to London’s 5’6” Mayor, but the Olympics to him didn’t go far enough. “It was squandered,” he said in the same interview. “I feel really strongly about this. We can’t be seen just to be a place where we see the world’s best, the elite, doing sports.”

And while much of his mission is about trying to encourage Londoners to get involved in sports at the grassroots level – the local football team, amateur tennis games, a boxing club round the corner – he’s not ashamed to chase the big guns, to some formidable success.

This year saw an NBA basketball game played at the O2 arena; but it’s the deluge of American Football games has been the most impressive. Both Twickenham and Wembley stadiums are being used for matches – between the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins, the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, and, on October 29, the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns.

These games are a huge boon for London, and arguably for the UK as a whole. Football games at which colossal UK flags have been unfurlede alongside the stars and strips have been beamed into the homes of millions of Americans; while crowds have filled stadiums for games at which many will undoubtedly have forked out considerable sums on flights, hotels, meals out and trips to London’s top tourist attractions.

As the protest movement against Donald Trump in American sports – #TakeTheKnee – has grown, part of the phenomenon has been to see American football players stand to listen to God Save The Queen, while kneeling in a solemn and defiant protest for their own anthem.

There’s more: the teams themselves bring extraordinary benefits to the capital in a truly primadonna-esque manner.

Each year, containers are packed up with the supplies that all the NFL teams set to play in London will need for their early autumn season à l’étranger. In 2015, the New York Jets sent over at least 5,000 items, according to the New York Times, with everything from practical gauze pads and wrist pads to extension cords and cereal and even – yes, really – 350 rolls of toilet paper. (Apparently our stuff is too thin.)

Wembley Stadium, where many NFL games have taken place. Image: Rob

Of course, much of the benefit from such a ludicrous shipping operation falls on their side of the pond.

But the team also employed an industrial launderer to collect their dirty training kit at one location, wash it, and deliver it to another. They also flew a chef from their London hotel over to New York to teach them what and how the team eats – and how their food is prepared – over at Jets HQ.

Officials from the team made two trips to London before the team even set off, visiting hotels and practice sites, planning what would work best for the Jets.

All this bizarre activity suggests that London’s  and the Treasury’s – coffers will enjoy some kind of uptick. But as Sadiq’s international sporting ambitions expand – he wants to host an NFL franchise in London – he would do well to keep a cautious eye on the past.

Tech giants like Amazon and Apple know they can extract vast concessions from cities – like Amazon seeking a home for their second North American headquarters, knowing they can milk deal-sweeteners from cities by staging a ‘bidding’ process, and as Apple knows they can wipe the floor with planning conventions as the city of Cupertino, CA’s largest taxpayer. In the same way, NFL teams know that they have huge power over the cities they allege to call home.

In 1995, the Cleveland Browns upped sticks almost overnight and moved to Baltimore – known in ominous tones as ‘The Move’. Team owner Art Modell had signed a deal with the city of Cleveland, whereby he gave the city a portion of his annual profits in exchange for eventual ownership of the stadium. The Cleveland Indians – another local baseball team – protested that they had no share in revenues, despite much of the stadium’s funds being generated during their games as much as during the Browns’, and promptly appealed to the city for their own facility.

As a result, the stadium lost vast sums – Modell claims up to $21m between 1993 and 1994 – and Art Modell asked for $175m of public money to refit Cleveland Stadium. Before the issue was ever settled, he had announced the move to Baltimore. The day after the announcement, Clevelanders approved the vast sum in a vote.


Though the most infamous of the NFL teams’ arm-twisting, ‘The Move’ is not the only instance of teams extracting concessions, exceptions, and public money from cities in order to preserve their continued allegiance.

If London is going to end up hosting a franchise, then it will need to particularly wary of such cynical tactics. It’s likely that London voters would not look kindly on rules being bent for an American Football team, let alone of serious taxpayers’ money being spent on any such arrangement.

Sadiq Khan must play a careful juggling game – knowing how to fruitfully harvest the NFL money tree, without ever spending too much on watering it.

Not so much the brutish clashing of an American Football game, perhaps, as a rather more shrewd game of chess. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.