The NFL’s European headquarters live 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 the capital of England, creating a sense of vision and control. It’s the kind of vision that makes you believe the world is at your feet – and for Brett Gosper and his new employers, it may just turn out to be true.
Gosper is the newly appointed head of Europe and the UK for the league, having succeeded Alistair Kirkwood earlier this year. Gosper, a 61-year-old former professional rugby player who became a marketing guru, spent the last decade pushing for rugby’s international expansion as head of World Rugby and now has a similar task with the NFL: Take an already popular sport to new heights.
His initial ambitions include putting flag football at the Olympics and rolling out the British NFL Academy – which opened in September 2019 and is based in north London – across the continent. All that, however, has to wait. He and his team have planned the most logistically challenging London Games to date, with an international player combined in between, no less. In a world still adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, where no NFL matches were seen outside the United States last year, it has been as difficult as you could imagine.
“I think you had to accept that these games probably shouldn’t be played, and then plan like hell in the details to make sure they were,” Gosper told ESPN. “The vaccination program in the UK has been very successful, it has helped our case tremendously in putting these games on. And things have turned in the right direction for us. But it has required a lot of planning from the teams here in the UK and the US to get these games, and also from the clubs themselves who visit here, to be strong and decide that this is what they want to do.And we have all come through this and we feel very, very positive and confident about where we are. “
So after a year-long break, London will host games in a 14th season, a race that began back in 2007. This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will “host” the New York Jets, while the Jacksonville Jaguars – the team most closely associated with London and back for eighth. once-meeting Miami Dolphins on October 17th. Both matches take place at Tottenham Stadium, the specially built facility jointly funded by Tottenham Hotspur FC and the NFL, marking the first year in league history where a match does not take place at Wembley Stadium.
Another canceled year in the London series would have been easy to accept when Gosper took over. He was hired in December 2020, but his first day on the job was not until February 7 in last season’s Super Bowl. He had completed a seven-day hotel quarantine where his food was passed under the door before stepping out at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay to watch Tom Brady burn Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs to the tune 31-9 in front of a stadium half full with cardboard cutouts. The view of full stadiums, no matter full stadiums outside the United States, seemed imaginative.
Gosper was there to see it all live, and the gears in the leader’s head would have spun with the same questions that the league has spent millions of dollars and a few generations answering: How does it take what is offered in 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 collected American football magazines, picked up a few issues at a time from the physio room and his thumb through the section on fitness and conditioning, and scanned for tips on how to improve. He may not have had the same physical gifts as Walter Peyton and Co. – “Thank God they did not get on a rugby field while I was playing,” he says – but the sport was on his radar. A few years later, when he was touring the United States as a player for elite French rugby side Racing 92, the New York Times ran a story comparing Gospers’ team to the New York Jets. “So from the early’ 80s, I was a Jets supporter, and still am, ”Gosper now adds.
He could not have known then that the Jets would be in town for his first London game as NFL boss. Not least because the league itself was still figuring out if people would show up to see its product. Through the 1990s came first the World League of American Football then the NFL Europe before the mid-2000s brought about a change of mindset: in the words of then-NFL international manager Mark Waller to the New York Times: “If you’re in Pepsi, you do not do not sell the world Pepsi Version 2. You sell them Pepsi. You find a way to make it happen and you find a way to present it to them in the right way. “
And then the league took the right deal – NFL season games – on the go. So successful, in fact, that Gosper’s challenge lies in new but well-known frontiers.
TWO WEEKS since then, Gosper arrived in Munich, Germany, for another round of interviews. The NFL knows that it already has a strong presence in the country, with as many fans as in the UK, a large number hanging from the days in NFL Europe where five franchises were based in five different German cities.
The country’s fans grew a sense of belonging to the sport through its party elephants and parachutists carried the championship trophy to the field — and the 30,000-strong crowd (about twice that of any other host country in the league) was left in the cold when it was shut down.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Gosper was met with anxiety when he arrived in the country to chat about the plans to settle regular season matches there, even as early as next year.
“‘Is that true? Are you blinking at us? Are you really serious about having games in Germany?” says Gosper about the questions he was asked on that media trip. “They are obviously huge fans of the sport and there is a massive passion there. But it would be the very first normal NFL season games. They need to be planned properly.
“We are very, very serious about our growth plans in Germany. The German public should be soaked by it and know that something is coming.”
Gospers blueprint for success is no different from its predecessor Kirkwood, who spent two decades shaping the sport in Europe, establishing an organized path for international players to reach the NFL, as well as an academy program for youth talent.
“Building out of what already exists, there is nothing broken here,” Gosper says. “It’s not a matter of correcting, it’s a matter of building on a very strong foundation.
“We are seeing double-digit growth in all aspects of our business. Whether it’s primarily the broadcast, whether it’s across Germany or in this part of the UK, Super Bowl viewership, average viewership over 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 what can be a little bit. excessive.
“But let’s see what the future brings.”