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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

NFL owners showing ignorance by nixing Japan for regular-season games


The oversight was about as subtle as a cockroach on a white rug.

Jack Gallagher

A big announcement -- years overdue -- provided a glimmer of hope, but upon closer examination just produced more disappointment.

That was my reaction to the NFL's recent decision to begin playing up to two regular-season games overseas a year, for five years, starting in 2007.

The move to play "real" games abroad was clearly progressive, but it was what the league's official announcement didn't say that was confounding.

The league's statement read: ". . . participating teams and venues will be decided at a later date with Canada, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom as potential host countries."

What about Japan -- host of more NFL preseason games outside North America than any nation in the world?

Not even a mention.

It smacked of a lack of respect for a country which has been the site of 13 American Bowls dating back to 1989.

Under the NFL's new initiative, teams would rotate playing internationally over a 16-year period, with each club playing twice outside the United States.

One game would be as the home team, the other as the visitor, so the net loss would be one home game per franchise over the duration.

The contests would be played ahead of bye weeks for the participants, allowing them time to get over jet lag after returning home.

"This step comes in response to the tremendous and growing interest in the NFL around the world," new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said about the resolution, when it was announced.

"The owners believe that hosting a limited number of regular-season games outside the United States on a regular basis is in the best interests of the league and will help to increase the fan base, build awareness of the NFL and grow the sport worldwide."

Goodell, whom I remember from my days working in the World League of American Football (now NFL Europe), is clearly a visionary, who knows how to get things done.

As the NFL's point man, Goodell was the catalyst behind the wave of new stadiums built for NFL teams over the past 15 years.

On the job for just a couple of months as commissioner, he has gotten the picky NFL owners to approve this concept, and also unveiled the "International Game Pass" with Yahoo -- which allows NFL fans outside the U.S., Canada, Mexico, U.S. Territories, Bermuda, Antigua and the Bahamas, the chance to pay for the opportunity to see live games over the Internet.

When I contacted the league and asked for an official comment on why Japan was being excluded from the decision to play regular-season games overseas, I received this response from Michael Signora, the NFL's director of media relations and international communications:

"The requirement to show regular-season games live in the United States made it difficult to consider this option."

At first glance, this statement would seem to have credence.

With games kicking off in Japan in the evening, it would mean they would be on TV in the States in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, depending on the time zone.

However, up until 2002, the American Bowl games in Japan were always played on a Sunday morning here, so they could be televised back to the States live on Saturday night.

In 2003, the league, concerned about dwindling attendance at the Sunday morning tilts, moved the game between the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Jets to an evening start, and saw a big crowd turn out at Tokyo Dome.

Attendance was outstanding again in the summer of 2005, when the Indianapolis Colts played the Atlanta Falcons at the Big Egg in an evening kickoff.

A morning start for a regular-season game in Japan is not ideal, but if is that or nothing, I'm sure most NFL fans here would be in favor of it.

When I contacted NFL Japan managing director Hikaru Machida, to ask for his comments on the future of regular-season games in Japan, the response wasn't very encouraging.

"The 10-year plan in Japan includes making the NFL more popular here, having kids play flag football, finding a Japanese NFL player, and having an NFL game, whether it is regular-season or preseason."

Machida then provided some insight into the real point of contention.

"Japan has been a candidate to play host to a regular-season game for a long time. What concerns the owners is the distance of the site from the United States. That's why Mexico, Canada and Britain are the strong candidates."

Ah, yes, the owners.

These are the same guys who voted to shut down the World League, back in 1992, and have now consolidated the "NFL Europe" into five teams in Germany and one in Amsterdam.

I have always been amazed by the lack of perspective the NFL owners have. Once again, they are impacting the future growth of the game internationally with their selfish ways.

Money has consistently been a key stumbling block to playing regular-season games outside the U.S., with the owners reluctant to give up the gate proceeds from a home game.

Proof that old ways die hard was seen in the response of Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, to the move to take regular-season games abroad.

"Obviously the league's going to work out the economics, and if we lose a home game, we'll get compensated," Bowlen was quoted as saying. "Obviously we'd like to play in Mexico or Canada and not have to travel to Europe, and that's probably the way it would be set up because of our location."

This is the kind of resistance that Goodell is facing in trying to grow the NFL internationally.

Owners worried about money and their teams first, the big picture second.

Meanwhile, take a look at the NBA, which first played regular-season games outside North America more than 15 years ago, had several teams hold training camp and preseason games in Europe this year, and is talking about someday putting NBA franchises in Europe, and you can see the gulf in vision.

The sad fact is that in the NFL the commissioner is much more beholden to the owners than David Stern is in the NBA.

Stern, who has immense power, tells the owners what to do, not the other way around, which is the way it should be.

Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, never seemed to want to go up against the owners. He kept them happy by negotiating record-setting television rights contracts for 17 years and keeping a relatively low profile.

The reality is that the NFL should be much farther down the road internationally than it is. The recent moves illustrate that Goodell realizes this, and is trying to take prompt action to rectify it.

At some point, though, he is going to have to take a stand with the owners and force them to give up their archaic ways.

Until that day arrives, Japan will continue to be left out in the cold.



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