London won't host the Super Bowl anytime soon, but NFL will remain international in age of Trump and Brexit says league's UK boss

 
Joe Hall
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Wembley NFL
Wembley Stadium: A super bowl for a Super Bowl? (Source: Getty)

For NFL fans in London, watching the Super Bowl this Sunday night will follow a familiar routine of staying up late, finding a comfy position on the couch with plenty of snacks to keep you going, perhaps sneaking a quick snooze in at half-time and then fighting on through until the final down — just as the sun is beginning to stir.

Meanwhile in Houston, where this year for Super Bowl 51 an exciting Atlanta Falcons will take on the powerhouse that is the New England Patriots, millions of dollars will be spent by the tens of thousands of visiting fans in town for a party.

Londoners are now familiar with the economic boon that gridiron gives a city after nine years of hosting regular-season games at Wembley. Such was the excitement after over 80,000 tickets were sold to London’s first ever NFL game in 2007, league commissioner Roger Goodell even admitted he was looking into bringing Super Bowl to the capital.

A decade on, and the city’s appetite for the league has only grown bigger, with four games to be hosted in town for the very first time next year.

Read more: Potential of London NFL franchise discussed with Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke

Yet according to NFL’s main man in London Alistair Kirkwood, bringing the iconic event to the UK is not on the horizon.

Instead Kirkwood, who has worked on the NFL’s operations in the UK and Europe for 17 years, laying the groundwork for a potential future franchise is the focus.

“I would not see us playing a Super Bowl in the UK until we had a franchise,” the NFL UK managing director told City A.M.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference
The Atlanta Falcons (l) will take on the New England Patriots (r) this Sunday night (Source: Getty)

“I’ve never tried to make that a big thing because as wonderful as that would be, it would still be a one-off occasion. For all the complex logistics of trying to work out how a franchise operates here, a Super Bowl would be equally challenging; late Sunday night, early February in London, with transportation and weather and everything else.

“It would would be a little bit like the Olympics. If it happens then that’s absolutely brilliant, but then afterwards you need to build on something else. You need to build a legacy. If you just put on a one-off event, no matter the scale, what does that actually lead to?

“A franchise is much more interesting to me because that’s year in, year out and is building a broader fanbase throughout and arguably would be the catalyst for us to be seen as a true major sport. It would be a game-changer.”

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A London NFL franchise enjoys bipartisan political support from sports minister Tracey Crouch and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, while Donald Trump’s new US ambassador to the UK, New York Jets owner has previously given his backing to the idea.

Trump, who used to use Twitter to vent about NFL issues of the day before turning his attention to upsetting the world order, hasn’t expressed a view but the expansion of a quintessentially American brand into a new market might somewhat conflict with his “America First” philosophy.

The NFL’s globe-spanning ambitions — Mexico City hosted its first game last year while Germany and Canada have been touted as future venues — has become the dominant ideology across major sports in recent years. Premier League teams play in pre-season tournaments abroad, Premiership Rugby clubs have brought league games to New York, American college football teams play in Australia, NBA has hosted fixtures in China, England, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

New York Giants v Miami Dolphins
The New York Giants run out for the first ever NFL game in London (Source: Getty)

It somewhat jars with what some describe as a political shift in the west towards isolationism, protectionism and nationalism.

Yet Kirkwood doesn’t expect the NFL to stop crossing any walls — literal or physical — just yet.

“Irrespective of what’s happening on a macro basis, the role of sport to enthuse and excite and thrill still continues no matter what,” he says.

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“Our challenge all along is that we’re not a sport that is indigenous [in the UK] that the masses have grown up playing. Irrespective of the political and economic landscape, I don’t think that changes.

“So I would consistently keep positioning ourselves as a sport with American heritage but irrespective of this year, I wouldn’t actually want to be associated with any positive or negative viewpoints of Americana in general.”

As for Brexit, Kirkwood argues that “in a world where Britain may be looking beyond the borders it’s hard for at least the last three decades then at least from a sporting and maybe a couple of other contexts we can play a part in that.”

Besides, although you probably won’t know it from the bonanza of the Super Bowl this weekend, when brands pay millions of dollars for a coveted half-time ad slot to reach audiences of over 100m people, foreign soil may be the only fertile ground left for growth to the NFL.

Doomsayers have been pointing to low domestic TV ratings this season as a signal that the unthinkable may finally be happening — American football has reached saturation point in America.

Kirkwood doesn’t believe we’re there quite yet and points out that audience figures picked up after the wall-to-wall coverage of a particularly dramatic election year.

But he and the league know it will come.

“It will do over the next generation,” he says.

“And that’s why over a period of time you need to grow internationally. But you’ve got to do it with credibility. That’s why we’ve just been doggedly playing lots of games and building it up here over time.

“People need to realise you’re not just a circus coming into town and you’re actually adding to the sport’s landscape.”

That sporting landscape has already changed dramatically since the NFL first planted its flag at Wembley a decade ago. If the games continue to increase and bloom into a London franchise over the next 10 years, a bleary-eyed Monday morning every February doesn’t seem like such a bad compromise to make.

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