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.