Having once worked for a large American corporation, I was invited as their guest to attend the New York Giants v Miami Dolphins gridiron match at Wembley back in October 2007, a regular season game which the Giants won 13-10.
Such was the interest that the first 40,000 tickets sold within 90 minutes. On the day, more than 81,000 assembled to create a fantastic, noisy atmosphere.
Perhaps 80-85 percent of spectators were American expatriates and their willingness to create a little piece of America at one of the UK’s most inaccessible stadia convinced NFL officials that Wembley was a venue worth re-visiting.
Seven gridiron matches have since been played there, attracting average attendances of 82,000, or well over 10,000 more people than attended last Sunday’s Community Shield between Arsenal and Manchester City.
The NFL returns to London next month for the first of three regular season autumn duels when Miami face Oakland on September 28. For more than a decade, team owners and administrators of the world’s richest sports league have discussed the economic benefits to be gleaned from having a permanent NFL franchise based in London. That this has not yet happened is telling.
According to the NFL, American Football has around 11 million UK-based followers. The sport is extremely popular among British students, while television viewing figures have continued their relentless, upward climb for more than a decade, yet still there’s no sign of a London-based franchise. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appears more inclined to see teams continue to play the odd match in the capital.
From a commercial perspective, the NFL recognises the benefits of expanding into new markets, but remains curiously reluctant to commit to backing a large-scale, overseas foray, perhaps mindful that their attempts to support a nascent European gridiron league in the 1990s ultimately failed. The league folded in 2007.
The NFL doesn’t strike one as a parochial, overly timid body, yet their willingness to first consider, then reject adding an extra overseas fixture suggests that while the notion appears attractive, upon further investigation, it’s probably left well alone.
Which brings us neatly onto the FA, a grateful beneficiary of the three NFL matches due to be played at Wembley between September and November.
Following last Sunday’s testimonial-paced Community Shield, which attracted a crowd of just 71,500, the lowest since Wembley re-opened its doors for the match in 2007, the idea of taking what used to be English football’s traditional curtain-raiser abroad was openly considered by FA general secretary, Alex Horne.
“It’s an interesting idea,” said Horne, who added, “we’ve seen the NFL do something similar… and we know that Spanish and Italian football are looking at doing that with their own Supercup-type games.”
Although he also pointed out that contractually, the Community Shield is scheduled to remain at Wembley until 2018.
The case for the FA taking the match abroad has gained momentum in recent weeks, as has the argument for playing a 39th league match overseas, a move designed, say some marketers, to ‘expand the brand’.
Yet the notion, last discussed – and rejected – in 2008, arose not as a result of extensive research or economic analysis, but as a consequence of two of the world’s biggest clubs, who happen to play in the Premier League, facing each other on foreign soil for the first time.
Earlier this month, more than 65,000 supporters watched Liverpool play Manchester United in the final of a lucrative, made-for-television tournament in Miami, Florida.
Chance played a large part in bringing Britain’s two biggest clubs together, but suddenly, talk of playing one additional Premier League match at an international venue was resurrected.
But this is not the type of game spectators in Singapore, Sydney or Seattle would be watching. With all due respect, fixtures such as QPR v Hull are not going to put too many international bums on seats, so the 39th game would need to ensure teams with known crowd-pulling capability played those who were less well-known overseas.
Such a contrived arrangement would obviously diminish the appeal, undermining the Premier League brand-building argument. On the eve of a new top-flight season, arriving in the wake of another abysmal World Cup campaign, perhaps the FA and Premier League might be more inclined to work together to give a greater number of English youngsters a crack at playing in England’s main football league.
The argument that the Premier League is missing out by not playing at least one competitive match per season overseas is tenuous at best. The Italians and French have ventured abroad only with their versions of the Community Shield and while the market for Spanish football is potentially enormous, the adjective only applies if Barcelona or Real Madrid are playing.
For the time being, however, the export of Premier League matches appears unlikely. Footballing bureaucracy will delay it, while national associations will be justifiably concerned that the arrival of the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal could undermine their own competitions.
Most important of all, the NFL, whose commercial template is admired and emulated in some areas by the Premier League, rejected the idea three years ago. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore would be well advised to do the same.