This weekend sees the return of the NFL to London for the first time since 2019. Michael McQuaid looks at the future potential for the league in Europe.
The return of the NFL London Games is nothing short of a triumph for the National Football League.
May 4th, 2020 seems like a very short time ago. The world was in the depths of a COVID-19 pandemic - when the inevitable happened.
"After considerable analysis, we believe the decision to play all our games domestically this season is the right one for our players, our clubs, and all our fans in the US, Mexico and UK," NFL executive vice president, chief strategy and growth officer Christopher Halpin said in May 2020. "We greatly appreciate the support of our governmental and stadium partners in Mexico and the United Kingdom, who all agree with this decision, and we look forward to returning for games in both countries in the 2021 season."
It was a year of significant change and adaptation for the NFL overseas. With no international games, the league had to find other ways to enhance the fan experience for both new and existing fans. Many different initiatives in the UK, Germany and beyond allowed the league to progress through the early pandemic stage.
Thankfully, we had a full season - with no game cancellations. Tom Brady’s triumph in Tampa Bay almost allowed fans to breathe a sigh of relief that a season that could have easily derailed was completed.
It wasn’t just a different year in regards to the pandemic and the NFL. With the appointment of Brett Gosper as NFL Head of UK and Europe in early 2021, a new focus and viewpoint for the development of the league overseas was initiated.
With two games to look forward to in London over the next two weekends, Brett Gosper is focused on both the short term and long term growth of the NFL. After a year off, Tottenham is ready to host the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets this weekend, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins due in the UK capital next weekend.
Speaking to The Associated Press this week, Gosper stated that the opening of an NFL office in Germany is “reasonably imminent”.
"It's reasonably imminent because we're at the intense phase of a search for a general manager. Where we decide that would be set up might depend on where we land on a possible game in Germany,” said Gosper. Earlier in the year, eight cities in Germany had expressed an interest in hosting a regular season game in the future, while a bidding process was announced by the NFL in June 2021. Gosper is confident of news soon on this front.
"We will whittle down to three and we're hoping we'll be able to announce something in the next week or two”. One issue for the league is the one-off hosting of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022, which may postpone the German game for one season. "If we can solve those, then it could be '22. Certainly no later than '23,'' Gosper said.
Going forward, the next challenge for the NFL is additional growth. Many NFL fans on social media in Europe will notice the growth of NFL France, while the league has amassed a sizeable following in Spain, where the work of The Spanish Bowl has been impressive. Gosper is interested in further growth in mainland Europe.
"It would seem that France is probably the third market in that sense in the analysis that we've done, followed by Spain...the Nordics are very strong too, with a smaller population base.''
It remains to be seen if the NFL will return to Ireland in a pre-season game or regular season game. With the emergence of the College Football Classic in Dublin, with Nebraska playing Northwestern in 2022, there is a clear demand for American Football in Ireland. The NFL is currently reviewing marketing plans from teams that are interested in “deploying internationally”. One would hope that the Pittsburgh Steelers will one day return to the emerald isle.
Finally, the chance of a full-time team in London in the future?
"We'd love a franchise to come to London one day, obviously, because it's going to help grow our fan base not just in London but across Europe, as well, given the proximity. It's now up to any owners — if that's what they'd feel they'd like to do, then we're ready for it. But that's entirely their call.''
The future is bright for the NFL in Europe.
You can follow The Irish NFL Show this weekend from London. The show is live from opposite Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday at 9am, while we will be at the Atlanta Falcons training facility on Friday afternoon. We will also provide live updates from Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Brett Gosper was speaking to The Associated Press this week.