Saturday, June 15, 2024

What next for the NFL in Europe? The UK has shown possibilities are endless for league’s international expansion

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The UK has been scrutinised as a future base to its own NFL franchise for over a decade. It would cherish one and prosper with one, but it does not necessarily need one, for the league has already hung up its coat, removed its shoes and settled down for a cuppa in its exceptionally normal home away from home.

For the past fortnight, London has played stage to a festival of sporting grandeur indicative of the appetite and devotion within a perfectionist fanbase forever seeking progress. A ‘what’s next?’ mantra and unrivalled immersion is customary to every sport across Britain, not just one it has de-monopolised. If it’s here, it’s here to stay, it’s here to conquer, it’s here to be defended, it’s here to gloat about, it’s here to be learned.

A traditional rainbow of jerseys has evolved from part-time ‘could be a good day out’ fandom, which remains a still refreshing component to its growth, into an intense collective knowledge polished enough to rival any NFL crowd in the United States.

“When I was here everybody was cheering like ‘I’m happy’, now it’s real fans here, fans of certain teams,” former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew told Sky Sports. “It’s exciting to see that people have taken a liking to our game and they’re picking sides, I think that’s the best part because now you have somebody to root for.”

UK Falcons Fans gather outside the stadium before Atlanta’s clash with the Jets

The question of an ultimate goal and ‘next steps’ is one put to Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL chief strategy and growth officer Chris Halpin and NFL head of Europe and UK Brett Gosper at every opportunity. But what has become increasingly clear is that the answers continue to multiply.

There is no one definitive answer. New goals, new steps, new possibilities are emerging every year, and the picture may be bigger than the league had ever imagined.

Tottenham hosted two regular-season games this month upon the NFL’s return following a year away due to the coronavirus pandemic. And while a firework-filled extravaganza may be the peacocking event, the league’s relationship with the UK goes deeper.

“What doesn’t surprise me is that they (fans) understand the game because it’s a sporting culture, country, so when they want to learn about the game they really do, they really engage. The fans, the atmosphere, the environment, I’m always surprised when I see people walking down the street with their team’s jersey on, you see the passion. I never take that for granted, that’s beautiful and I’m so honoured to be a part of it.”

Former NFL defensive back Jason Bell on UK fans

The all-round package

Where British teenagers might typically imitate their favourite Premier League footballer in the park, one young athlete went airborne to wrestle a catch over the shoulder of his friend to the sound of ‘he got Mossed!’ during a flag football game at the launch of the NFL Foundation UK at Tottenham Community Sports Centre. How’s that for becoming a sustainable fixture on the British sporting landscape?

The Foundation was set up to tackle inequality and lack of opportunities for 12-20-year-olds in the capital with a view to expanding around the country, the league and Greater London Authority contributing an initial £1m designed to provide community organisations in London with grants, training and equipment over a two-year period from April 2022.

Hereby underlining the definition of the permanent, year-round relationship and presence the NFL had always envisioned striking with the UK.

“This is a very important development and further cements the NFL’s commitment to the UK,” said Gosper. “We have a chance to create opportunities for under-served young people and have already seen the impact our sport can make through successful pilot schemes and several years of operating NFL Flag programmes. We hope this investment in stakeholders will play an important role in helping communities in their post-pandemic recovery. I am excited to see the work of the NFL Foundation UK flourish.”

An emphasis amid the NFL’s search for a German host partner – now whittled down to one of Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich – has been the importance of a similar long-term marriage that goes beyond simply taking games to mainland Europe.

The UK has asserted itself as a perfect blueprint in that regard.

“I think those guys have certainly the greatest potential for creating a long-standing relationship, not just for one game or more games every year, but also supporting the youth,” former Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was born in Germany, told Sky Sports.

“Not just the fans, but the clubs and NFL Academy that exists here [in the UK], it’s stuff like that where the league and city can give something back to the ones that want to be playing. It’s not just about the stadium size, it’s about the all-around package.”

“This is the beginning…”

Between victories for the Atlanta Falcons and Jaguars, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium also welcomed the NFL’s International Combine to town, with 43 players consisting of 13 nationalities taking part in physical tests before scouts and trainers in hope of earning a spot on the International Player Pathway programme, which has produced the likes of Jordan Mailata, Efe Obada, Sammis Reyes and Christian Scotland-Williamson.

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Brett Gosper, head of Europe and UK NFL, joins Inside The Huddle to discuss the International Combine taking place at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the league’s future in the UK, Germany and the rest of Europe

It all felt incredibly… normal. Less like exposure for the game in this country, more like business from a verified NFL hub as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for three players from Nigeria’s Up Rise Academy, the presence of 12 German representatives from iconic NFL Europe teams, the journey of two New Zealanders from the other side of the world and rugby converts striving to make the transition reminded that the UK is now as important to the NFL as the NFL is to the UK.

“This is the beginning of what will change the game,” London-born Arizona Cardinals defensive end Jack Crawford told Sky Sports. “It’s going to happen, it’s just about how we get there and it’s impressive to see guys of this stature here and how they went about finding them.

“I think the NFL has used the UK as a stepping stone into Europe to kind of gain access to the rest of Europe. It’s played a hugely important role in the development of the international outreach and I know there are a lot of other countries that aren’t far behind.”

“I played in Wembley twice, obviously growing up in Europe that’s a good feeling, there’s something special about it. A lot of players have not left the States, and from a football perspective it’s great to play in front of a different audience, it has a different feel to it. There were a bunch of different jerseys, you saw a London Monarchs jersey or the Barcelona Dragons and then other NFL teams and they were just happy to be at an NFL game, it’s just a different atmosphere, it’s a special thing.”

Ex-Patriots OT Sebastian Vollmer on his London experiences

To see players from nearby towns and cities, as well as Germany, Nigeria, France, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Hungary, Japan, Italy and Slovakia vying for a shot in the NFL was further evidence of the global potential, the door to which the UK can take pride in having opened.

There is a whole wide world out there capable of offering the different cultural experiences and audiences visible in soccer and Formula 1.

“Should be a different game every week in a different country,” joked Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson after Atlanta’s win over the New York Jets in London.”

Logistical conundrums aside (they’re for the brains behind the scenes), the prospect of a Grand Prix-style project, done correctly, is now impossible to ignore. Particularly with teams now being permitted to negotiate their own deals with international markets.

Bridging the gap

A day on from the Combine and the NFL Academy’s student-athletes were out practicing on the Tottenham turf, deservedly capitalising on the attention garnered during an International Series window while delivering another warning stateside of the UK and European talent being unearthed, chiselled and sent their way.

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The NFL’s Chief Strategy and Growth Officer, Chris Halpin, discusses the International Combine at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where 50 entrants have been hoping to land contracts with teams in the competition

“I would say when I first got into the league that this was a vision I always dreamed of because I knew there were guys that had what it takes to not just play NFL football but get their D1 scholarship, which I think is the most important part,” said Crawford.

“Getting your education paid for in whatever division, I thought was always the goal, to get some of these kids and change your family narrative just getting this education. That was something of mine I always had that I wanted to pay forward after I was done playing.

“I’ve been so focused on my own career and just the NFL week to week, keeping my job, that I haven’t had a chance to see how far it’s come and to see it now it’s crazy.”

Already the Academy has seen tight end Seydou Traore head to Arkansas State, while tight end Darren Agu has committed to Vanderbilt and quarterback George Reynolds is continuing his development on the University of Ottowa’s Gee-Gees programme.

Elsewhere Bavaria-born quarterback Alexander Honig earned his way onto the TCU roster after gaining attention playing for the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns in Germany. Europe is coming…

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Watch the highlights of the Week 6 matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars in London

“I can already think of some coaches that when they get their hands on some of the guys out here they’re easy to coach,” continued Crawford. “One of the positives and strengths I think international players have is that we don’t have bad habits, we don’t have traits that you brought with us from high school.”

It’s a path that may well also widen courtesy of the NFL Foundation UK, which promises to tie into a swelling transatlantic legacy including an NFL Flag programme that has engaged more than 50,000 eight to 11-year-olds in primary schools since 2017.

“We never really played American Football because the kit wasn’t available and that’s why it’s so wonderful seeing this generation get the benefit of playing it,” Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told Sky Sports. “Also the real innovation is the flag football where you get young people involved in American Football without the need for the kit and the pads, it’s really exciting.

“Another great thing is many of these youngsters will be able to get a scholarship to go to an American college/university with their skills even in flag football, it’s so exciting.”

The spectacle

And the games. The games that will continue to sell out within minutes, and continue to welcome new fans whose knowledge will continue to grow in the company of seasoned gridiron obsessives.

“You have so many fans from all different teams so that ability for their team to come here and play is what makes it so special and I think what makes this so dynamic and unique is that no matter what team comes here this is a UK stadium, these are UK fans, they own it when it comes here and that’s a unique experience like nowhere else,” former NFL defensive back Jason Bell told Sky Sports.

Don’t let the cup throwers detract from a spectacle that pushes the boundaries of entertainment and sentiment and fun and escapism, which is what sport should be about. From Marisha Wallace’s viral rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner on the roof of a ready-made NFL headquarters in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, to the pyrotechnics and Air Force flyovers that serve as another damning reflection of how understated other sporting events in the UK remain to be.

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Capt Cody ‘Skip’ Hancock (left) and Troy ‘Popeye’ Capasso (right) reflect on their experience performing the iconic fly-by at the NFL game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

“The fact that we were able to have the UK flag, the American flag and the NFL logo in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in that game and then all the fans, it just shows how our two nations work so well together, it’s basically seamless,” said F-15 pilot captain Cody Hancock, known by the call sign ‘Skip’, who was involved in the coordinator and execution of the London games flyovers. “This is the same kind of spectacle, probably better than you would get in the States.”

For weapons system officer Troy ‘Popeye’ Capasso, also responsible for the flyover operation, it was an experience close to home.

“It was nice seeing American Football again, it’s been a while for me, we’re currently stationed in the UK so we’re about 50 miles to the north of the stadium and we don’t get a chance to see real football matches very often,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable. I haven’t seen a stadium that packed since before COVID, so it was really cool. The fans were super engaged. It was just a really cool experience, something I’ve never been a part of. I love that the Jags play this game, at least one every year, so I’m excited to come back. Fans are awesome, so thank you, guys, all the Jags fans and all the American football fans in London. Appreciate you all.”

Trevor Lawrence reflects on his London debut

Earlier this year the league reiterated its commitment to enhancing its international market by stating that there will be at least four international games played every season starting from 2022, with Germany set to join the UK and Mexico as a ‘date for your diary’ attraction.

The 30th regular-season game to be played in the UK saw Trevor Lawrence become the first rookie quarterback in history to win in London as he helped the Jags to victory over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. Thirty games in and the zest for football is as potent as ever, while the International Combine, success of the Academy and new Foundation are bar-raising branches.

So, what’s next? The answer today might be different to the answer a year from now. Either way, eyes are being widened by endless possibilities.

When the NFL goes global, and it will, the UK will be largely to thank. With or without its own franchise.

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