NFL UK chief: No additional London games for now - but Germany is attractive
By Euan Cunningham
The NFL is cautious over adding any more games to the four it is set to host in London this year because of the danger of overstretching itself, according to Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of American football's premier competition in the UK.
If it were to add extra overseas games, another European country, perhaps Germany, would make more sense, Kirkwood continued.
Speaking exclusively to Sportcal after the NFL opened a new London academy for promising children and teenagers, Kirkwood played down suggestions that the logical next step for the NFL in London is to host five, or even eight games (a full home regular-season), saying: “I might argue that four games is enough for us at the moment, in terms of proving that we’re popular enough to put games on.
“I really don’t see much difference in having four games or five, for example. It’s less about how many stadiums we play in and how many games we play, and more about trying to develop roots in this country, and maturing as a proposition.”
Kirkwood added: “The most obvious place for us to move to next and do something large-scale is Germany. We have a fanbase similar in size to the one in the UK, we have a great television partner [free-to-air broadcaster ProSieben Maxx and OTT platform DAZN] and our audiences are superb, there’s a really strong amateur set up over there… I honestly think, having seen the passion for our sport over there, that it’s a no-brainer to do more in that market. There’s only upside there.”
The NFL has staged London games for the past 12 years, moving from one game per year originally to two, three and then four fixtures, normally staged each October and November.
This year, the English capital will host two games at Wembley Stadium, England’s national soccer stadium, and two for the first time at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Premier League soccer club’s new ground.
Responding to questions over when the games can expect to become profitable, the NFL’s official line is that the games are “a marketing investment, helping us to establish a greater presence in the UK,” and that therefore the organisation has no immediate concern over the games losing money.
Kirkwood argued that, for logistical reasons, the current structure and scheduling of the London games, which have taken place every autumn since 2007, do not lend themselves to profitability.
He said: “I can’t see a time when, as we’re currently structured, these games will break even or make a profit.
"Games will continue to be loss-leaders in the way we’re currently structured, because we have to bring the teams over here, put them up, rent the stadium and training facilities.
“It’s a conscious decision by the ownership to invest in the market, grow the fanbase and then see where we take it.”
Kirkwood added: “I believe that if you look back at our journey, it becomes obvious that if we do more things here on a year-round basis, and become more relevant and more impactful, especially to a younger age-group, these can only lead to greater fan growth and greater opportunities.
“These may lead to us playing more games here, or even launching a future franchise here, but none of it’s guaranteed. This is unique in sport after all – growing a game here that’s not indigenous to the country, no one else is doing that worldwide at the scale we are.
“Four years ago, I wouldn’t have forecast that we’d be ground-sharing with a Premier League team, or that we’d have customised dressing rooms and tunnel entrances at a brand new stadium, or that we’d have British players in the NFL, or that we’d be launching an academy.”
In 2015, the NFL and Tottenham announced that for 10 years from 2018, at least two NFL games a year will be played at the newly-built stadium. The opening games then had to be delayed 12 months after the ground was not ready in time for last autumn’s proposed fixtures.
Kirkwood was enthusiastic about the NFL-friendly nature of the arena (the organisation was consulted extensively during the construction process), saying: “What’s great about playing at Spurs’ new ground is that it’s a customised, bespoke NFL stadium and experience, the first dedicated NFL stadium outside America, which will make it substantially easier for the teams.”
The Caroline Panthers and the Houston Texans will travel to London for the first time this year, taking the total number of teams to have played in the capital over the last 12 years to 31 out of the 32 NFL sides.
The Green Bay Packers, which are based in Wisconsin and have one of the most passionate fanbases in the NFL, are the one outlier, which Kirkwood described as “a source of personal frustration for me,” adding: “We have had three or four occasions over the years where we’ve thought we’d have the Packers coming over.
“I’d love to get the 32nd team done, as then we’d be able to say that we’ve been through the London journey with all 32 sides. That would be massive for us. At least by only having one team left, we know what the target is.”
The NFL is keen to continue attracting local corporate partners for the games, with roughly half of the sponsors for this year’s London games being UK based, while the other half are global partners.
Kirkwood said: “It’s important for us on an ongoing basis to continue to build UK partnerships, as that’ll help us make the sport more relevant over here, and more indigenous and independent from a British perspective.
“We’re unique, actually, as we’re the only games in the NFL set up to have LED signage around our perimeters. Games in the US are fairly brand-free in terms of signage around the game itself. A lot of the sponsorship value in the US comes through TV ads and not at the actual events, where there isn’t a lot of billboarding or signage.”
The Chicago Bears-Oakland Raiders will kick-off the NFL International Series 2019 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on 6 October, before Carolina Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the same venue on 13 October.
At Wembley, Cincinatti Bengals play the Los Angeles Rams on 27 October, followed by Houston Texans-Jacksonville Jaguars on 3 November.