Thu. May 19th, 2022

The NFL’s return to London after a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19 looks as good as a Tom Brady flea flicker. Without Premier League matches due to the international break, the largest sports crowd in the UK on Sunday – around 60,000 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – will sob away when the New York Jets take on the Atlanta Falcons.

Next weekend, another sold-out crowd will revel in the pompom-waving XXL jersey-over-hoodie-wearing, little beer-slurping experience again when the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars come to town.

Meanwhile, the man at the center of it all, Brett Gosper, the former CEO of World Rugby and the new head of the NFL UK and Europe, makes a striking confession to Observer. “In terms of planning and level of detail, this is as big as a Rugby World Cup final,” he says. “For most games, you may get good luck messages a day or two before, but they have been coming in since Monday. Sunday feels like a massive game – and the start of a massive week for us. ”

It’s a sign of the enduring love affair between the NFL and London that Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is being packed into four teams that are nowhere near the cream of American football. In truth, they are not even semi-skimmed milk. Between them, they have only won three matches – and lost 13 – this season.

It is roughly equivalent to the Premier League sending Norwich to play Burnley in New York for a week, and then following it up with Newcastle against Southampton. It’s part of a broader trend: So far in the 28 regular season matches in London since 2007, there has never been a game between teams with two winning records. But still, the crowds, from the committed to the curious, come to enjoy the three-hour experience.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan
The Atlanta Falcons are small favorites to beat the New York Jets despite the poor form of their quarterback, Matt Ryan. Photo: Robert Deutsch / USA Today Sports

The absence of a regular season game in the NFL in the UK last year has only made the heart beat stronger. “Last season, Sky’s average audience for live NFL matches increased by 34%, while February’s Super Bowl attracted over four million viewers across the BBC and Sky – the most watched in 30 years,” said David Tossell, NFL Europe’s director of public affairs. affairs. “Meanwhile, over 20 million unique individuals watched some NFL programming last season in the UK.”

But while the NFL continues to move the chains in the UK, Gosper is surprisingly subdued when it comes to discussing the possibility of a franchise in London. Gone are the days when George Osborne and Boris Johnson seemed to talk about it every fall. Instead, Gosper emphasizes that it is up to the owners. For him, it is a more urgent concern to cultivate the game throughout Europe – rather than planting a permanent flag in one country.

There are good reasons for this – from tax codes and time zones to the brutal logistics of transporting so much muscle and machinery across the sea and back. Between them, the Jets and Falcons will have flown nearly 16,000 miles when they return home on Monday. It is not a small business.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (right)
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (right), whose team faces the Miami Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium next Sunday. Photo: Joseph Maiorana / USA Today Sports

But that doesn’t mean the NFL isn’t on the march. Gosper points out that the NFL is committed to moving from two international games back to four again in 2022. “The direction of travel for international games will definitely be more than less – and the hope is that we can have even more games next year,” he says.

Gosper points out that the NFL plans to split international markets between its 32 franchises, giving teams specific cities or regions where they will have some commercial exclusivity – including the right to build stores, make sponsorship deals and hold fan camps. “Much of the growth in the coming years will come from markets outside the UK. Germany is the most obvious – there is a huge potential. ”

For now, however, the focus is on Sunday’s match. And while both the Falcons and Jets have struggled this season — neither in truth are particularly good — the expectation is that the game can be close and relatively high-scoring.

The Jets’ new quarterback, Zach Wilson, looked terrible in his first three weeks, but last Sunday he had his best performance of the season in the team’s 27-24 overtime win against the Tennessee Titans. With Atlanta’s defense allowing the most points in the NFL during the first four games, the expectation is that he will have plenty of opportunities to show why he was selected as the overall second pick in the April draft.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are three-point favorites among bookmakers. But with their star receiver, Calvin Ridley, missing and their 36-year-old quarterback, Matt Ryan, seeing a shadow of himself so far this season, it would take a brave person to predict the outcome with some certainty.

But no matter what happens, Jets coach Robert Saleh expects the teams to put on a show – and potentially attract a whole new set of believers. “I’m biased,” he says. “I know football is considered the No. 1 sport in the world, but I think [American] football is the best sport in terms of just the energy, the fan base, the absolute love and passion fans have for it, especially in the United States.

“And to see it grow internationally and to see the interest just shows that it is a universal sport. The goal is hopefully to make this brand grow worldwide. I think it’s pretty cool. ”

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