It’s back again. Not bigger, but certainly better than ever as the NFL International Series ticks into its 11th year.
After four games last autumn, a record amount for London, there are just three this year but after some murmurs about mismatched opponents being sent over the Atlantic – the closest of the quartet of results in 2017 was a 17-point handling – the NFL has wired up possibly its most impressive slate yet.
The crown jewel is the final of the trio to take place at Wembley, a match-up between the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles and AFC upstarts the Jacksonville Jaguars, a game for which tickets are the most in-demand of any NFL fixture for the whole regular season.
Such clamour represents a reassuring nod to the burgeoning British fanbase for a sport that has spent a decade now dedicating itself to making London ready for a full-time NFL franchise.
In the early years there was doubt over the sustainability of bringing a team to the British Isles, now it appears a near-certainty, a formality.
These things don’t come around by accident, though. The big sporting events more than ever arrive like alien colonies – sometimes just big modern stadia with English signage, sometimes full villages of white tents and barriers – that land themselves in major cities, become the centre of the sporting world and then disappear with millions of pounds. Look at the Ryder Cup, an anglo-American event where the only thing French was the air, or Formula One, where the stated aim of the new owners is to make every event like its own Super Bowl.
The NFL has, by this stage, perfected their ability to parachute into London, sweep the fans of their sport into a frenzy, embedding faith like missionaries and then potter off home to the United States after another successful series and the numbers continue to point upwards.
Only in 2018 did the first proper wrinkle crop up for those who are honing the London blueprint, when Tottenham’s new stadium, built in collaboration with the NFL, was delayed. It has meant switching a fixture to Wembley, but it is telling that the league’s vice-president for international, Mark Waller, has been comforted by how easy that process was, rather than being concerned about the delay itself.
“On an operational level, the disappointment of moving that game to Wembley from the Tottenham stadium was huge and yet the ability to sell it out and sell it out quickly – 20,000 more tickets than we’d originally planned for – sort of shows you that the demand is there and that the operational excellence and ability to execute tasks quickly against the clock is too.”
It was the first real spanner in the works after 21 games and 11 years of playing in London, but the NFL is used to moving quickly. Only last year a hurricane forced the short-notice switching of Tampa Bay and Miami’s first game of the season and a moving of both teams’ bye weeks but went off without a hitch, and it pays to be prepared.
London is just like any other NFL city in that, if it had a team, it would have to be treated like all other franchises. So the focus is on making the English capital into a ready-made London NFL ‘shell’ that a team could just move in and occupy like a multi-billion dollar hermit crab.
The Tottenham stadium is part of that, and Waller believes it “could be the best stadium in Europe” when it is finished. By the time that new ground hosts a game, however, Wembley could already be owned by Shahid Khan in what would feel like the latest enormous step towards a London franchise, even if that would appear to come at the expense of the development at White Hart Lane.
Rather than talking specifically about the Jacksonville Jaguars – owned by Khan – as a potential London team, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – who Waller denies are eyeing a move across the Atlantic after claims from former Khan employee Craig Kline that the Glazer family wanted to maximise their commercial link-up with Manchester United and rival the Jags – Waller prefers to zoom out and look at the example of successful recent relocations as a roadmap to what could play out in Britain.
“I think one of the things that people should really look at is what happened to us in LA,” he said.
“For 17 or 18 years we weren’t in LA and there wasn’t really any sign of actually any interest and then in the space of a year, three different owners all expressed interest.”
A big reason for that was the incredible sprawling complex Stan Kroenke got planning permission to build at Inglewood, Los Angeles, which will eventually be the home to two NFL teams, a small nation’s worth of retail and entertainment space and the NFL’s media arm, NFL Media. That is still under construction though, whereas in London, the stadium groundwork is in place.
“That was definitely a catalyst,” he says of Inglewood.
“Now we have some other teams a year away from moving [the Oakland Raiders heading to Las Vegas].
“London is a hugely attractive market for any sporting entity in the world in any sport. If we’ve been able to prove that the market can sustain a franchise and can manage it operationally, there’s going to be more than one person interested in it, by definition – because it’s the second-largest city in the world, or second-most economically powerful.
“So anybody with a vested interest in growth and expanding the sport and building out their franchise is going to look keenly at the opportunity and that’s the beauty of what has been created.
“We’ve created huge demand, definitely more than enough fans to sustain the opportunity. I think we’ve been creative on the stadium side; we’ve proven Wembley without a doubt, we’ve proven Twickenham which had never hosted a sport other than rugby – we’ve broken that paradigm.
“Then you’re going to have Tottenham with the new stadium and the two-field configuration so the job for me is to make the market ready and make it operational executable and I think [the franchise owners] are a competitive bunch, there definitely won’t be ‘oh we’ll just let other people take a look at that.’”
So is it job done? The blueprint seems to be virtually in place and the NFL are delighted with their progress.
“You’re never there. There’s always more things that you can prove out, more things you can test, they’re practices!
“There are more things to look at. We’re playing a game in Mexico, should that be two? We haven’t been back to Toronto or Canada for quite a while.
“What I like about the UK is that it’s a logistically difficult challenge and it’s an incredibly sophisticated and competitive sports market. You’ve got a lot of really great sport, so I’ve always felt that if you can prove it and make it work here then that’s almost the blueprint for easier or more proximate markets.”
The future for the NFL is international, it seems. The only question is how international? A boon for the league is that this year’s game in Mexico City is taking place between the two current Super Bowl favourites, the all-round juggernaut of the Los Angeles Rams and the lights-out offensive play of the Kansas City Chiefs.
That will be good for drawing attention to a fixture taking place south of the 2000-mile border between the US and its neighbour, which is increasingly being spoken of as a future home to a team in its own right.
“There’s no doubt you can make a franchise work in Mexico from a logistics standpoint and similarly Canada. But if this can work in the UK then this could almost certainly work in Germany where the fanbase is very similar, the size and scale of the popularity is similar, the stadium infrastructure after the 2006 World Cup is fantastic.
“You wouldn’t need in Germany – if we were to start looking at that – to go through a lot of the learnings that we’ve gone through here.
“It’s one of the reasons we stayed focused on the UK when there was a real temptation for ‘why don’t we do a game in Paris, or Berlin, or Madrid?’
“We really were hard on ourselves in saying ’no, let’s really prove out this market long-term, strategically, and create the blueprint for it and flex it into elsewhere.”
In short, it has never been done but the NFL look to be on the cusp of doing it and the entire sporting world now looks on intrigued as to how this long-term play develops.
“It’s amazing in the same way that I suspect the people who came up with the European Cup, as it was back in the day, would be sitting there thinking ‘wow, look what the Champions League is now’
“I think it’s groundbreaking certainly for us but also for a lot of sports – the idea that you could have a domestic league that spans oceans and cultures and continents.”
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