When the NFL returns to London on Sunday for the first instalment of a Wembley triple bill over consecutive weekends, it will represent more than just a battle for supremacy between the Seattle Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders.
It will also mark the final stage of the NFL’s attempts to gauge the feasibility of a franchise relocating to the capital, perhaps as soon as 2022.
Over the course of 12 years, since the first regular-season NFL match was staged at Wembley, the American football league has steadily increased its activity in London, taking on multiple games from 2013 and, in Twickenham, a second venue in the city from 2016.
Growing television audiences on both Sky, which has live rights, and the BBC, which shows highlights, indicate that British interest in gridiron is still growing, while the speed with which tickets were snapped up confirmed to NFL chiefs that our appetite is yet to be sated.
Staging three fixtures back to back is seen as the acid test for that demand – as well as for the Wembley playing surface. After that, it will be up to the league’s all-powerful franchise owners to decide whether to give a London team the green light.
“We try every year to learn something more and I think that this one will be about the demand and about the field,” NFL executive vice-president Mark Waller tells City A.M.
“We feel very good on the fan business side, on the stadium availability and the ability to schedule our games across multiple stadium options. I think the only thing we can't prove – and quite honestly I'm not sure how we would test for it – is whether a team can be successful when it travels that much, season in, season out.”
Waller and other NFL figures have repeatedly mooted 2022 as the start date for any London franchise, and he adds: “I think we're in good shape for that timetable that we've always talked to. Our job I think is to make sure the market is ready and that the issues we've talked about have been identified and potentially solved. I think we're in good shape for that, so now it's really a question of as and when ownership feels that the time is right.”
A final decision on a London franchise is not needed until next year at the earliest, says Waller, as the venues here are already available. Some high-profile domestic relocations were three-year projects, but they involved stadium construction. “I don't think the lead-in would be longer than that – and potentially shorter,” he says.
The NFL’s links to London will be strengthened if Shad Khan, the American owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Premier League club Fulham, completes a £600m deal for Wembley. A decision is expected later this month and the league is squarely behind Khan’s proposal.
“We've always felt that Shad as a businessman has a great eye for acquiring global assets, whether it's the Jags, Fulham, in his own businesses in the car industry,” says Waller. “We value owners that really have an eye for great assets and Wembley is clearly an iconic global asset. It would be fantastic for us if that was part of his portfolio.”
Wembley’s sale to Khan would only strengthen the belief that the Jaguars, who have played an annual game here every year since 2013, represent the clear favourites to move across the Atlantic, with Wembley as their new home. Waller, however, expects other franchise owners to consider rival proposals. In time, he says, London could even be home to multiple NFL franchises.
“I don't think it's a formality that because Shad has played games in London for six years, that means only Shad is going to be interested in London,” he adds. “The other point is I don't think anybody imagined we’d have two teams in LA [the Chargers and the Rams]. I'm not saying we'll have two teams in London or Europe in the near future, but one of the things I love about our ownership is that the views that they take are long term. In London we've been building this progress over 11 or 12 years. If there is demand there, there will definitely be the potential for more than one team over a long period of time.”
Tottenham Hotspur’s attempt to grab a share of the UK NFL market, by incorporating full American football functionality including a retractable pitch in their new 60,000-seater stadium, suffered a setback when delays to the project meant that this week’s game had to be switched from the venue to Wembley. It was to be the first game in a 10-year deal that will see two NFL fixtures a year held at Spurs’ home, which Waller insists has been unaffected.
“We have a great relationship with them, we worked hand in hand with them through the decision making process,” he says. “It definitely has no negative impact on our relationship or our future plans. We're excited to be in that stadium when it's finished. It's going to be an amazing venue for us, alongside Wembley.”
The NFL’s global prestige has been threatened in recent months by the row over players kneeling for the national anthem in protest at social injustices, although Waller believes the league has emerged unscathed.
“I think there's a general understanding that our players have a social conscience, they have a desire to drive progress and change, and that's consistent with the image that the US has as a country where people are able to speak their minds and be open and free in a democratic environment,” he says. “I don't think it's impacted us negatively internationally at all.”