By Keith Cummings
The NFL visits the UK’s shores for a fan-friendly four times this coming season, but behind the glitz and glamour the grass roots are growing also. It has been deemed as extremely important at NFL headquarters to further expand into the UK and European market by attempting to find future players for the league from overseas. What the young followers of the NFL want more than anything else, above and beyond just buying tickets and team merchandise, is the chance to play at the very elite level of the NFL.
The league’s history has seen them attempt to create feeder systems before through two previous incarnations of the world league and also a solely European version. Huge initial success was found, mainly in the first flush of interest in the sport with the consumers largely sold on the razzmatazz aspects of the game. Families flocked to a product that was very far removed from their own football’s macho-male-only image. History has now seen huge injections of TV money which has led to soccer catching up in providing a more sanitized family experience.
If the NFL was to abandon its expensive and difficult logistical league set-up, it would then double down on taking its real show to London. As European fans’ knowledge grew rapidly, the NFL gauged interest and decided to move beyond pre-season games and introduced full regular season games in 2007. To say this has been a success would be a huge understatement, with fans circling the dates in their calendars, even if their own teams don’t feature. With this year’s four regular season games finding ticket demands at an all-time high, it appears that only the famous London ticket touts are happy with the allocation.
Running alongside the ten-year commitment to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is a new NFL Academy based in London. It features three notable ambassadors, including young NFL stars Odell Beckham Jr., Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and Patrick Mahomes. This is a clear statement that the league is looking to inspire today’s youth into picking up an egg-shaped football, instead of kicking the traditional rounder version. The new London Academy will concentrate on 16-18-year olds, and be designed around the long-standing coaching combine format.
When looking back on the league’s development, particularly in the UK, it does beg the question of what could have been achieved much earlier? How much talent could have found its way into collegiate set-ups many years previous, if it had only been provided with academy infrastructure? While the new set-up provides no guaranteed gateways into more organized levels of the game, it certainly offers inspiration. Further to this, it provides more organized and cohesive, advanced coaching which can only aid young players’ development.
At the showbiz end of the NFL’s product there is a billion-pound new stadium to showcase its current stars. The Chicago Bears will play the Oakland Raiders and the Carolina Panthers are to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the luxury of Tottenham’s long overdue and over budget new surroundings. Its new design is an ideal fit for NFL franchises; huge locker rooms and corporate box facilities, coupled with swanky concourses for merchandising opportunities, all prove attractive. Only the capacity of 62,000 will limit the vast potential for staging such NFL fixtures.
As Commissioner Roger Goodell watches his strategy in London prosper it begs the question of how much further forward can it all progress? Teams, whilst onside with trans-Atlantic voyages during the season, have also been guarded in their overall commitments at times. This has seen many of the traditional franchises who draw fans impressively at home games never commit to giving up one their precious home games. The Jacksonville Jaguars have become the unofficial London team, largely due to their poor record at drawing crowds to their own stadium. However, this could change if the Jaguars continue to build more on their successful 2017 season.
The Jags and their owner, Shahid Khan, have long flirted with a move to London. His Ownership of Fulham Football Club, and the Jags’ annual pilgrimage to the England’s capital, makes his franchise the most likely in any potential full-time London franchise. However, the sheer success of the NFL’s product is self-evident with every one of the thirty-two teams well represented by colourfully adorned fans at each of the London games. This is a deep bond that any team moving to the UK is unlikely to change; perhaps the current format gives European fans the best of both worlds.