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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.