Saturday, June 15, 2024

The NFL is back in London — with a new man leading its international project

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The European headquarters of the NFL lives on the eighth floor of a modern office block just off Leicester Square in London’s West End, world famous for its theaters. The floor-to-ceiling glass of the office space creates a panoramic view of England’s capital city that endows a sense of vision and control. It’s the kind of sight that makes you think the world is at your feet — and for Brett Gosper and his new employers, that just might turn out to be true.

Gosper is the newly appointed head of Europe and U.K. for the league, having succeeded Alistair Kirkwood earlier this year. Gosper, a 61-year-old former professional rugby player turned marketing guru, spent the past decade pushing for rugby’s international expansion as head of World Rugby and now has a similar remit with the NFL: Take an already popular sport to new heights.

His initial ambitions include putting flag football in the Olympics and rolling out the U.K.’s NFL academy — which opened in September 2019 and is based in north London — across the continent. All that will have to wait, though. He and his team have been planning the most logistically challenging London Games to date, with an international player combine in between, no less. In a world still adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic that saw no NFL games staged outside the United States last year, it’s been just as difficult as you would imagine.

“I think you had to accept the fact that these games probably weren’t going to be played, and then plan like hell in the detail to make sure they were,” Gosper tells ESPN. “The vaccination program in the U.K. has been very successful, that has helped hugely our cause of putting these games on. And things have turned for us in the right direction. But it has taken a hell of a lot of planning from the teams here in the U.K. and United States to get these games, and also from the clubs themselves who are visiting here to be strong and decide that’s what they want to do. And we’ve all come through this, and we’re feeling very, very positive and comfortable about where we’re at.”

So after a year’s hiatus, London will host games for a 14th season, a run that began back in 2007. This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will “host” the New York Jets, while the Jacksonville Jaguars — the team most closely affiliated with London and back for an eighth time — face the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 17. Both games will take place at Tottenham Stadium, the purpose-built facility jointly funded by Tottenham Hotspur FC and the NFL, marking the first year in series history where a game does not take place at Wembley Stadium.

Another cancelled year of the London series would have been easy to accept when Gosper took charge. He was hired in December 2020, but his first day on the job wasn’t until Feb. 7, at last season’s Super Bowl. He had finished a seven-day hotel quarantine, where his food was passed under the door, before he stepped out into Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay to see Tom Brady torch Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 31-9 in front of a stadium half-filled with cardboard cutouts. The prospect of full stadiums, never mind full stadiums outside the U.S., seemed fanciful.

Gosper was there to see it all live and the cogs in the executive’s head would have been spinning with the same questions that the league has spent millions of dollars and a few generations trying to answer: How does it take what’s on offer at the Super Bowl and export it around the world? And how does the league keep it authentic?

Gosper, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia but moved to Paris to play rugby in the 1980s, was once exactly the kind of guy the NFL now wants to attract. In his early twenties, he would collect American football magazines, picking up a few issues at a time from the physio room, and thumb through the fitness and conditioning section, scanning for tips on how to improve. He may not have possessed the same physical gifts as Walter Peyton and Co. — “Thank goodness they didn’t, while I was playing, make it onto a rugby field,” he says — but the sport was on his radar. A few years later, when touring the United States as a player for elite French rugby side Racing 92, the New York Times ran a story comparing Gosper’s team to the New York Jets. “So from the early 80s, I was a Jets supporter, and still am,” adds Gosper now.

He could not have known then that the Jets would be in town for his first London game as an NFL executive. Not least because the league itself was still working out whether people would turn up to watch its product. Through the 1990s came first the World League of American Football then NFL Europe before the mid-2000s brought a mindset change: in the words of then NFL international chief Mark Waller to the New York Times: “If you’re in Pepsi, you don’t sell the world Pepsi Version 2. You sell them Pepsi. You find a way to make that happen, and you find a way to present it to them in the right way.”

And so the league took the real deal — NFL regular season games — on the road. So successfully, in fact, that Gosper’s challenge lies in new, but familiar, frontiers.

TWO WEEKS ago, Gosper arrived in Munich, Germany, for yet another round of interviews. The NFL knows it already has a strong presence in the country, with as many fans as in the U.K., a large number hanging over from those days of NFL Europe where five franchises were based in five different German cities.

The country’s fans grew an affinity for the sport through its pageanty — elephants and parachutists carried the championship trophy to the field — and the 30,000-strong crowds (around double that of any other host country in the league) were left in the cold when it was closed down.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that Gosper was met with angst when he arrived in the country to chat about the plans to stage regular-season games there, even as early as next year.

“‘Is it true? Are you hoodwinking us? Are you really serious about having games in Germany?” says Gosper of the questions he was being asked on that media trip. “They are obviously huge fans of the sport and there is a massive passion there. But these would be the very first regular NFL season games. They have to be planned properly.

“We’re very, very serious about our growth plans in Germany. The German public should be buoyed by that and know that something’s coming.”

Gosper’s blueprint for success is not too dissimilar to his predecessor Kirkwood, who spent two decades shaping the sport in Europe, establishing an organised pathway for international players to reach the NFL, as well as an academy programme for youth talent.

“Building off what already exists, there’s nothing broken here, ” says Gosper. “It’s not a matter of fixing, it’s a matter of building upon a very strong foundation.

“We’re seeing double-digit growth in terms of all of the aspects of our business. Whether it be first of all just the broadcast, whether it be across Germany, or in this part in the U.K., Super Bowl viewership, average viewership across the season.

“Having three or four games in London would be great. Having two, potentially three, in Germany would be great. Maybe getting a game in France. But beyond that, you have to have the bandwidth and the complication around that might become a bit excessive.

“But let’s see what the future holds.”

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