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The key questions shaping the future of the NFL in Europe

The key questions shaping the future of the NFL in Europe

The Jacksonville Jaguars will play their ninth game in London on Sunday’s early NFL matchday kick-off when they take on the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium. It will be the 43rd match played outside the United States and the pursuit of a dream first tested in Mexico in 2005, then taken to uncharted waters in London in 2007.

The adventure turned out to be exciting and successful – since then, the NBA and MLB have been emulated. This season was one of the most ambitious in the league, with the organization of a regular season game in Germany for the first time. As the 2022 International Series prepares to draw the curtain back on yet another success in London, here are the key questions facing the NFL as it continues to expand across Europe.

Where should the Jaguars settle? Wembley or Tottenham?

It was former Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes who kicked off Wembley in 2007. That moment would mark the awakening of a dream for the NFL. It was the first regular season game hosted outside of North America and the start of an annual trip across the Atlantic. The fact that the first game took place at Wembley Stadium was also somewhat sentimental, in this venue which has housed some of the most defining moments in British cultural history, from the 1966 World Cup final to the infamous famous Queen concert at Live Aid.

So far, this initiative has been successful. Wembley comfortably hosted the first 15 international matches, with the home of English rugby, Twickenham Stadium, not being used until nine years later – the Giants again christened the NFL’s arrival, this time against the Rams of St. Louis in 2016. But recently the league established a new home in North London at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and put simply, it’s much better for the US national pastime. The stadium can sell all seats in the house without limiting visibility. The locker rooms are designed to accommodate the sprawling roster of 52 players of an NFL franchise, while Wembley divides them into three small adjoining rooms. Even the press conference rooms have a more American feel. But it was to be expected, since the NFL participated in the financing of its construction.

The NFL has hosted two international combinations of players at the stadium, and now stages more games per season than at Wembley, where the Jaguars remain a staunch comeback thanks to ties to owner Shad Kahn, who tried to buy the stadium in 2018 and describes it as “home away from home.”

The Jags will return to Wembley every year until 2024. Perhaps they should start arguing for a place at Tottenham. After all, the stadium was built for them.

Where is the demand?

International demand for the NFL has never been stronger, and it shows in the numbers. In July, when tickets went on sale for Germany’s first regular season game, 777,000 people logged on to buy tickets. An NFL spokesperson said at the time that they were “outdated” by the interest aroused.

These figures prove the demand in Germany, but similar successes can be found elsewhere. In London, all three games this year have been sold out and demand for tickets has increased year on year, while in the United States, for those unable to fly to Games, demand has also increased, with the recent match between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers being the most-watched international match ever – it drew 5 million viewers, a 55% increase on the last year.

“Growing the league and the game internationally is a major strategic priority for the NFL,” said Henry Hodgson, the league’s UK chief executive, in a written response to ESPN.

“We know that having live matches in the markets and using the power of sport and the culture of our game provides a powerful platform to connect with our avid fans and attract new fans…. We have played matches in London since 2007 and the interest and demand for tickets is stronger than ever.”

Demand for the game is vast, so much so that the NFL’s dream of a London franchise no longer seems fanciful but reasonable.

A London NFL franchise… why not a division?

Earlier this month, NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell was speaking ahead of this year’s International Series in London when he made a startling comment. He was talking about a long-held idea – to establish an NFL franchise outside the United States – although it was never just an idea.

Mr Goodell, who was attending a roundtable in central London, began by expressing his confidence in the UK capital’s ability to host the sport.

“There is no doubt that London could support not just one franchise, I think two franchises”, Goodell said. “I really believe it. It’s from a fan perspective, a business perspective, and a media perspective. I think that you [Londres] have all proved it.”

He’s said it before, as have other NFL executives, who are eyeing the sport’s future outside the United States, with London always the first option considered.

But Goodell went further. Sitting to his right, Neil Reynolds, the media face of the NFL in the UK, joked about whether the UK was being too timid in its demands. No matter a franchise, Reynolds said, “why not a division?”.

Goodell’s response was not humorous. “That’s part of what we do, right?” Goodell said. “We are trying to see if it is possible to have several places in Europe where we could have an NFL franchise. Because it would be easier as a division.”

The subject caused debate in European NFL circles for decades, but always remained a point of discussion rather than something concrete. Last year, with the arrival of an official from the league’s European division, Brett Gosper, the league seemed to have all but shelved the idea.

In an interview last year, Gosper told ESPN: “I think our aim would be to make sure that’s viable, that if an owner decides they want to bring their team to London… Everything is in place for that to happen. But it’s really a decision for an owner to make, and they all have very strong relationships with the cities they are currently involved with.”

He went on to say that the NFL would look to grow the game without relying on a London franchise, such as trying to add Flag Football to the Olympic program. Still, Goodell’s comments seem more optimistic. For now, this remains a subject of discussion. But this idea has just become much more ambitious.

London, Germany, Mexico… Who else should be entitled to an NFL game?

This season marks an important milestone in the international development of the NFL. For the first time, the league will hold a regular season game in Germany, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Seattle Seahawks at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena on November 13.

This match raises high hopes. It will be the first time the NFL has held events in the country since the demise of the NFL Europe league, where German fans were a passionate, beer-filled backbone. The league hopes an equally zealous atmosphere will reign next month.

His plans in Germany are long-term: The NFL will host next month’s game in Munich, but will change direction next season, with the game taking place at Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Park in 2023. The two cities will then alternate – Munich in 2024 and Frankfurt in 2025, and so on.

Each team is now required to stage at least one international match every eight years. All of this raises a question: Where does the NFL see its future in Europe? A large number of German supporters have always been present for the matches organized in London, whose support and infrastructure make it possible to organize more than one match per year. Before the pandemic, London hosted four a year. This season, the number of games played outside the United States will be five, including the clash between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football in Mexico City.

Gosper had an answer to that question last year. “Having three or four games in London would be great,” he said. “To have two, or even three, in Germany would also be great. Maybe have a game in France.”

“Beyond that you have to have the bandwidth and the complication around that could get a bit overkill. But let’s see what the future holds for us.”

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