The return of the NFL to London confirms the enduring love affair between the two | NFL
TThe NFL is back in London after a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19 looking as good-timed as Tom Brady’s flea flicker. With no Premier League matches due to the international break, Britain’s biggest sporting crowd on Sunday – some 60,000 at Tottenham Hotspur – will be swaying when they take on the New York Jets. Atlanta Falcons.
Next weekend, another crowd of fans will celebrate in the T-shirt-waving, T-shirt, and light beer experience once again when the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars come to town.
Meanwhile, the man at the center of it all, Brett Gosper, the former CEO of World Rugby and the new president of NFL UK and Europe, providing stark acknowledgment to Foreman. “In terms of planning and level of detail, this is in every bit as big as the Rugby World Cup final,” he says. “For most games, you might get good luck messages a day or two before, but they come since Monday. Sunday feels like a huge game — and the start of a huge week for us.”
It is a sign of the enduring love affair between the NFL and London that Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium will be filled with four teams nowhere near the stature of American football. In fact, they are not even skimmed milk. Between them, they have won only three games – and lost 13 – this season.
Which is roughly equivalent to sending Norwich to the Premier League to play for Burnley in New York one week, and then follow with Newcastle against Southampton. It’s part of a broader trend: So far in the 28 regular season games in London since 2007, there hasn’t been a match between two teams with two winning records. However, crowds still come, from the observant to the curious, to enjoy the three hour experience.
The absence of a regular season match in the English Football League in the United Kingdom last year led to an increased heart rate. “Last season, Sky’s average audience for live NFL games increased 34%, while the February Super Bowl attracted more than four million viewers via B BBC and Sky – the most watched in 30 years. Meanwhile, more than 20 million unique individuals watched some NFL programming last season in the UK.
But while the NFL continues to move the strings in Britain, Josper is surprisingly silent when it comes to discussing the possibility of a franchise in London. Gone are the days when George Osborne and Boris Johnson seemed to talk about it every fall. Instead, Josper stresses, it’s up to the owners. For him, developing the game across Europe – rather than placing a permanent flag in one country – is a more pressing concern.
There are good reasons for that—from tax and time zone laws to the brutal logistics of moving so many muscle and machinery across the ocean and back. The planes and the Hawks will have traveled nearly 16,000 miles between them by the time they reach home on Monday. It’s no small task.
But that doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t in a rally. Gosper notes that the NFL is committed to going from two to four internationals again in 2022. “The trend of travel for international games is definitely going to be more, not less — and hopefully we’ll have more games next year,” he says.
Gosper notes that the NFL plans to split international markets among its 32 franchises, giving teams certain cities or regions in which they will have some commercial exclusivity — including the right to build stores, make sponsorship deals and hold fan camps. “A lot of the growth in the coming years will come from markets outside the UK. Germany is the most obvious – there is huge potential out there.”
But for now, the focus is on Sunday’s game. Although both the Falcons and the Jets have struggled this season – neither have really been very good – expectations are that the match could be close and with relatively high goals.
New Jets quarterback Zach Wilson looked terrible in his first three weeks, but last Sunday he had his best performance of the season in the team’s 27-24 overtime win against the Tennessee Titans. With the Atlanta defense allowing the most points in the NFL during the first four games, expectations are that he will have plenty of opportunities to show why he was chosen as the second pick overall in the April draft.
Meanwhile, the Hawks are the three-point favorites with the bookmakers. However, with their superstar, Calvin Ridley absent, and midfield, 36-year-old Matt Ryan, who has looked in his own shadow so far this season, it would take someone brave enough to predict the outcome with any certainty.
But whatever happens, Jets coach Robert Saleh expects the teams to put on a show – potentially attracting a whole new set of believers. “I’m biased,” he says. “I know that football is the number one sport in the world, but I think so [American] Football is the best sport in terms of energy, fan base and the absolute love and passion that fans have for it, especially in the United States.
“And seeing it grow internationally and seeing the interest show that it’s a global sport. The goal is for this brand to grow around the world hopefully. I think that’s great.”