NFL’s return to London underlines enduring love affair between the two
The NFL’s return to London after a two-year hiatus because of Covid-19 looks as well-timed as a Tom Brady flea flicker. With no Premier League matches due to the international break, the biggest sports crowd in Britain on Sunday – about 60,000 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – will be hollering away when the Atlanta Falcons take on the New York Jets.
Next weekend, another sell-out crowd will revel in the pompom-waving, XXL-jersey-over-hoodie-wearing, lite beer-slurping experience all over again when the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins come to town.
Meanwhile the man at the centre of it all, Brett Gosper, the former chief executive of World Rugby and the new head of NFL UK and Europe, makes a striking confession to the Observer. “In terms of planning and level of detail, this is every bit as big as a Rugby World Cup final,” he says. “For most games you might get good luck messages a day or two before, but they have been coming in since Monday. Sunday feels like a massive game – and the start of a massive week for us.”
It is a sign of the enduring love affair between the NFL and London that the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will be packed for four teams nowhere near the cream of American football. In truth, they are not even semi-skimmed milk. Between them, they have won only three matches – and lost 13 – this season.
It is roughly the equivalent of the Premier League sending Norwich to play Burnley in New York one week, then following it up with Newcastle against Southampton. It is part of a wider trend: so far in the 28 regular-season matches in London since 2007, there has never been a game played between teams with winning records. Yet still the crowds come, from the committed to the curious, to revel in the three-hour and change experience.
The absence of an NFL regular-season game in the UK last year has only made the heart beat stronger. “Last season, Sky’s average audience for live NFL games went up by 34%, while February’s Super Bowl attracted over four million viewers across the BBC and Sky – the most watched in 30 years,” says David Tossell, NFL Europe’s director of public affairs. “Meanwhile over 20 million unique individuals watched some NFL programming last season in the UK.”
But while the NFL is continuing to move the chains in Britain, Gosper is surprisingly muted 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 it up every autumn. Instead, Gosper stresses that it is up to the owners. For him, growing the game across Europe – rather than planting a permanent flag in one country – is a more pressing concern.
There are good reasons for that – from tax codes and time zones to the brutal logistics of transporting so much muscle and machinery over the ocean and back. Between them the Jets and the Falcons will have flown nearly 16,000 miles by the time they arrive home on Monday. It is no small undertaking.
But that doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t on the march. Gosper points out the NFL is committed to moving from two international games back to four again in 2022. “The direction of travel for international games is certainly going to be more rather than less – and the hope is that we may have even more matches next year,” he says.
Gosper points out that the NFL is planning to divide up international markets among its 32 franchises, giving teams specific cities or regions in which they will have some commercial exclusivity – including the right to build shops, 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 one – there’s enormous potential there.”
For now, though, the focus is on Sunday’s action. And while both the Falcons and Jets have struggled this season – neither, in truth, are very good – the game is expected to be close and relatively high-scoring.
The Jets’ rookie quarterback, Zach Wilson, looked very green in his first three weeks (and three defeats) but last Sunday he was much improved in the team’s 27-24 overtime win against the Tennessee Titans. With Atlanta’s defence allowing the most points in the NFL over the first four games, the expectation is he will have plenty of opportunities to show why he was chosen as the second overall pick in April’s draft.
Meanwhile the bookies peg the Falcons as three-point favourites. However, with star receiver, Calvin Ridley, staying home due to personal reasons and 36-year-old quarterback, Matt Ryan, looking a shadow of himself so far this season, it would take a brave person to predict the outcome with any certainty.
But whatever happens, the Jets coach, Robert Saleh, expects the teams to put on a show – and potentially to attract a whole new set of believers. “I’m biased,” he says. “I know soccer is considered the No 1 sport in the world, but I think [American] football is the best sport in terms of just the energy, the fanbase, the absolute love and passion fans have for it, especially in the States.
“And to see it growing internationally and to see the interest just goes to show it’s a universal sport. The goal is to hopefully get this brand growing worldwide. It’s pretty cool.”