On any given Sunday between the months of September and January, millions of Americans can be found glued to flat screen televisions across the country, watching the hard-hitting action of NFL football.
Beyond the bone-jarring tackles and the highlight-reel touchdowns, professional football is a business. And in the case of the NFL, business has never been better.
According to Forbes, the league is coming off its most successful season in history, hauling in more than $9 billion in 2013. Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, has publicly stated his sights are set on $25 billion in annual revenue by the year 2027.
In addition to the NFL’s ever-increasing income, franchise values are at an all-time high: $1.2 billion each, according to Forbes’ most recent estimates. With 32 teams in the league, that’s a whopping overall value of more than $38 billion. The league has also firmly established itself as a major player in media circles (it held eight of the top 10 most-watched television programs last year), fetching multi-billion dollar network deals and millions of dollars for 30-second commercial spots during the Super Bowl.
With all that money being tossed around, it’s no wonder cities without NFL teams are chomping at the bit for a piece of the pie. Between ticket sales, merchandising and corporate sponsorship deals, there are mega bucks to be made by expanding to untapped markets. If the NFL decided to do so, here are the top 10 most deserving cities of a franchise.
10. Memphis, Tennessee
With a population of more than 650,000 (and nearly 1.5 million in the greater Memphis metropolitan area), Tennessee’s biggest city would make a great home for an NFL franchise. More than 200 miles away from Nashville – the home of the NFL’s Titans – Memphis’ proximity to both Mississippi and Arkansas would likely attract a legion of fans from across the southern United States. Although the city’s only current major sports team is the NBA’s Grizzlies, Memphis has a strong history as a sports city and their dedicated college following is likely to translate to the big leagues. Ironically, Memphis was awarded the Canadian Football League’s Mad Dogs in 1995, when the league unsuccessfully attempted to expand south of the border.
9. Salt Lake City, Utah
If the success of the 2002 winter Olympics and the consistently high attendance for Utah Jazz games are any indication, Salt Lake City would welcome an NFL franchise with open arms. While less than 200,000 people call the capital of Utah home, the population of the city’s metropolitan area is more than a million and the city is the fifth largest TV market without an NFL team. Salt Lake City successfully supports not one, but two, college football programs (University of Utah and Brigham Young University). With no professional team within 500 miles of Salt Lake City, an NFL franchise would also give football fans between Denver and the west coast a team to root for.
8. Columbus, Ohio
With the Browns in Cleveland and the Bengals in Cincinnati, Columbus would be the third NFL franchise in Ohio. But with a population of about 800,000 in the city proper and more than two million in the metropolitan area, the capital of the Buckeye state is the 15th largest city in the United States and in a prime position for a team of its own. Not only does the city support professional franchises in both the NHL (the Blue Jackets) and MLS (the Crew), but residents eat, sleep and breathe Ohio State Buckeye football. And in addition to the dynamic sports scene in Columbus, the city’s business prospects are as promising as ever; in recent years it has been ranked by BusinessWeek as one of America’s best cities and by Forbes as the No. 1 up-and-coming tech city in the nation.
7. Louisville, Kentucky
While the NFL may have overlooked Louisville as a potential expansion city in the past, this large city can no longer be ignored. In the past decade, the city’s population has more than doubled, making it the biggest in the state and the 27th biggest in America. Like several other markets on this list, Louisville is crazy about its college football and there’s no reason to believe the fervent following of its hometown Cardinals wouldn’t flood over to the big leagues. With no other major sports teams in the city and its massive television market (Louisville has ranked first in ratings for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every year since 1999), an NFL team here makes a lot of sense. And just think of the potential Ohio River Rivalry with the Cincinnati Bengals.
6. Portland, Oregon
Thanks to a population of more than 600,000 and the fact that it’s one of the largest TV markets without an NFL franchise, Portland is never far from the conversation when it comes to expansion. As the 28th most populated city in the United States, Portland has a healthy and loyal fan base for the NBA’s Trail Blazers and the MLS’s Timber, routinely drawing crowds of about 20,000 for each. And if the fans in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Oakland are any indication, NFL football on the west coast has never been more popular.
5. Las Vegas, Nevada
Known primarily for its gambling and nightlife, Las Vegas is constantly mentioned in expansion talks for all of the major sports. If a professional franchise will work in Sin City for any league, however, it’s the NFL. With a population of about 600,000 and a constant stream of tourists, there is no question Nevada’s most popular city can support a team in the country’s most popular sports league. With all the potential marketing angles and corporate sponsorships, a franchise could survive on its entertainment value alone. While professional football in Vegas would require some legal maneuvering in regards to gambling, an NFL team down the road is more than likely.
4. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
With a population of about 600,000 in the city and 1.2 million in the metropolitan area, Oklahoma’s capital is the 29th most populous city in America. Given the ongoing success of the NBA’s Thunder, which moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle in 2008, an NFL franchise could be next. Between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, there is plenty of college football in the state, but never a shortage of support. In the midst of a 10-year capital improvement program, which has included construction of the city’s tallest building and plans for a new convention center, Oklahoma City is poised to become America’s next “big city.” What better way to celebrate than a franchise in the country’s biggest sports league?
3. Toronto, Ontario
The NFL has experimented north of the border in recent years, with the Buffalo Bills playing a series of home games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre since 2008. While the 54,000-seat stadium is a little small by NFL standards, and ticket sales have left a bit to be desired, the deal was renewed in 2013 and Canada’s largest city still has its sights set on becoming a permanent home for an NFL club. With a population of about 2.5 million, the market in Toronto is equivalent to that of Chicago, and growing every year. While some people have doubts about a Canadian team competing in an all-American major sports league, Toronto has proven with both the NBA’s Raptors and the MLB’s Blue Jays that it can be done.
2. San Antonio, Texas
While an NFL franchise in San Antonio would join the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans as the third in the state of Texas, there are countless reasons to believe it could work. In addition to having a population of about 1.4 million and being the fifth largest television market in the United States without an NFL team, the city’s proximity to Austin would likely attract new fans and sell more seats. Add to that the fact that the city is home to the 65,000-seat, NFL-ready Alamodome (where the New Orleans Saints played their home games in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and it’s clear that San Antonio is one of the front-runners for an NFL franchise. And if the success of the two existing teams in Texas is any indication, a third franchise in the Lone Star State would flourish.
1. Los Angeles, California
While the City of Angels has failed to support an NFL franchise not once, but twice, rumors about a team landing in Los Angeles – either through expansion or relocation – just won’t go away. With a young and culturally diverse population of nearly four million people, not to mention the media ties and sponsorship potential in America’s second-largest city, it’s surprising a franchise in Los Angeles isn’t already in the works. Although league commissioner Roger Goodell recently stated there is no timetable for Los Angeles getting a team and that two-thirds of the NFL’s existing franchise owners would have to approve the deal, many believe it’s only a matter of time. And once it happens, chances are the third try will be the charm.
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