London calling

UK would welcome more NFL games

Updated: October 22, 2009, 8:09 AM ET
By Mark Woods | Special to ESPNBoston.com

LONDON -- In New England, the Patriots rule. In old England, that's strictly a job for Her Majesty.

But that won't stop the National Football League from trying to conquer a piece of the lucrative British sporting market. It's just smart business: London's Wembley Stadium -- rather than Raymond James Stadium -- will host Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots because the NFL sniffs an opportunity. With saturation on home soil, looking overseas is the logical next step.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles Krupa Tom Brady says he hopes the Patriots can bring some NFL excitement to England's sports fans.

"The venue is different, and we're in a different part of the world," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady declared before departure. "But I know the excitement that the English fans have for sports, especially their favorite sport, which is their 'football.' Hopefully, we can bring some excitement and continue to have some fans from across the world enjoy the game that we love here in America."

Of course, it's not a revolutionary concept. The capital of the United Kingdom hosted what the Brits call "American football" for the first time in 1986, when the Chicago Bears beat the Dallas Cowboys. It was the forerunner of a series of preseason contests branded "American Bowls," which, in turn, led to the establishment of the NFL Europe/World League.

All fine ideas, in theory.

Yet what the public wanted was the real deal. Which is why the Patriots -- regarded as one of the most recognizable international brands in the sport -- are traveling east, not south, this week. And why, for next season, it is likely that two regular-season games will be held in the UK to meet what the league believes is a growing demand. With, potentially, more to come.

"We are talking internally at a senior level in New York and hope we can make that happen," said Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of NFL UK. "If we don't, at some point in time, we do run the danger of it being a successful enterprise but that it becomes like a circus coming to town. I think it would be absolutely fine to have three, maybe four [overseas games] each year because people understand the logistical nature. The uniqueness of what we're trying to do in a very compressed season, and making sure that participating teams feel this is not a disadvantage to them, all of these things are incredibly important."

With Sunday -- as with Giants-Dolphins in 2007 and Chargers-Saints in 2008 -- headed for a sellout at the UK's most famous stadium (capacity: 85,000), the ticket numbers stack up. Overall, questions remain about whether it makes fiscal sense. While the London game is profitable on its own, league sources confirmed that moving a game across the Atlantic (the Buccaneers agreed to give up a home game) still loses money. That is because the NFL's UK operation is forced to reimburse the "home team" for all of the expected revenue, including secondary concessions such as parking and hospitality, under the terms of the league's collective bargaining agreement.

"The numbers are such that it is a loss leader," Kirkwood admitted. "But we see it as an investment."

Trying to be heard above the din generated by soccer's all-conquering English Premier League is a huge challenge. The NFL has been on British television screens for more than 25 years and has a small but extremely devoted core following. Viewership figures are rising. The BBC will show this season's Super Bowl on its main television network and airs a weekly game on one of its radio channels.

But with an almost invisible domestic league, a tiny reach into school programs, and the time difference, it is a tough sell. The last British-based professional football team, NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores, ceased operations five years ago this week. Their average attendance barely reached five figures. While there is a solid base, moving up from the undercard to become a main event will require time -- and money.

"You want to grow, and you want to do it in a way that doesn't effect the nature of the league," Kirkwood said. "So it's fine to be looking at the first few games as test cases but also proving that the games sell out and are popular. We need to move to two games a year, sooner rather than later. And post-Olympics, there is an opportunity to move to more games than that per year and really start building up a massive fan base here."

The long-term ambition, NFL officials concede, is to add European franchises if there is a demonstrable demand. Meanwhile, the challenge will be to persuade other teams to give up one of eight precious home dates on their schedule and pack up their equipment for the long flight to Heathrow.

The Patriots declined a request to comment on whether they would consider doing so. Likewise, it is hard to envision Jerry Jones agreeing to power down his new video board while the costs of Cowboys Stadium are still fresh in his mind. For many franchises, the fear of fan discontentment would be a big negative in their deliberations.

The idea appears to have received at least a marginal thumbs-up from one unlikely source. "I'm sure it will be something that we'll all remember," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I've coached in a lot of games, and to be honest with you, I can't say that I can recall them [all], but & I'm sure there will be a lot of memories of the whole [London] trip, the game, the venue, the whole thing."

As you would expect, for Belichick, departing London with a 5-2 record is his sole objective. For the NFL, the greater conquest is a mission that will require more than just a Patriot act.

Mark Woods is a writer for Britball Media and will file periodic updates from London this week for ESPNBoston.com.

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