Sunday’s NFL game at Wembley is part of a long-term commitment to London on the part of the league, according to NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood.
The New Orleans Saints will take on the San Diego Chargers in front of a sold-out Wembley Stadium on Sunday in a game that aims to build on the success of the visit of the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants last year.
With at least two more games planned for the capital in the coming years, Kirkwood promised that the league is committed to London for the long-haul – and that could even see a team one day based in England or a Super Bowl played at Wembley.
“The long-term strategy is to be a top-five sport here in this country,” Kirkwood said.
“If you consider that football, cricket, rugby and motor sports are the top four, we have an ambition to be the next level down.
“We’re not competing with any sports. Our games kick off and are aired at a different time to all other sports in this country so I think we can be complimentary. In order to do that we’ve got games here to sort of try to stimulate interest and be more relevant within this market.”
That means the promise of more games in London, which has cornered the market since the NFL decided to play at least one regular-season game overseas each season.
Sunday’s game will be the second in the so-called NFL International Series, and the plan is for the first four of them to be played in London.
However, Kirkwood does not feel guilty about hogging the event despite the sport’s popularity in other parts of Europe, particularly Germany.
“There is a danger that if you spread it around too much and too quickly, you have great events but it never actually leads anywhere,” he said.
“If you’re going to be true to your goal then I think you have to keep trying to show your commitment to specific markets.”
Whether that will one day lead to a London team or a Super Bowl, Kirkwood cannot say, but he suggested that recent progress shows that anything is possible.
“A couple of years ago, if I’d have suggested there would be a sold-out game between the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, playing a regular-season game, at Wembley, I wouldn’t have had much credibility because it seemed very fanciful only two years ago,” he said.
“So for us to talk about different scenarios in three to four years, such as a team being based here or something, I’m not saying it will happen but it’s not as remote as we might think.” Kirkwood believes the NFL is on course to reach its goals in terms of growing its popularity in the UK.
He pointed to television ratings on Sky Sports, which rose 45% in the second half of last season, with the turning point being the game at Wembley. Sunday’s game will be shown both by Sky and the BBC, who have British terrestrial rights to this season’s Super Bowl.
There are also more people playing the game in England – highlighted by 43 university teams in addition to the amateur league.
The NFL made the decision to take regular-season games overseas two years ago, having concluded that they would be much more effective than pre-season friendlies in terms of attracting attention.
“We think the best way to promote our product is by giving (fans) the real product,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the Global Sports Summit in London on Friday.
“The more sophisticated fans started to recognise that pre-season games aren’t the real thing. The players they wanted to see aren’t playing as much. This is really an effort to show them we’re going to promote our game.” Fans should certainly see a competitive game on Sunday, as both teams come to London smarting from losses last weekend that left them with 3-4 records. That means they risk dropping out of contention in their respective divisions.
“The great thing is that both teams coming in are in a situation where they really need to win to keep alive their chances of going to the play-offs,” said Goodell. “I think we’re going to see a very competitive game.”