Rugby tradition and the long-haul NFL Commitment to the UK

By Mark Tilley

The home of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and England rugby (some would even say the game itself) will soon open its doors to American Football this autumn as the famous Twickenham is added alongside Wembley Stadium as an NFL International Series venue in the UK.

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NFL games at Wembley have been an annual fixture since 2007 but this year’s contest between the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams will be the first non-rugby sporting event ever held at the 82,000 capacity venue which began life as a cabbage patch after the RFU purchased the land for just over £5,500 in 1907 with the first rugby game played two years later, in 1909.

107 years later, after hosting rugby league challenge cup finals and a variety of concerts including the big-hitting Americans R.E.M., Eagles, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Bon Jovi, amongst others, the claim on the RFU website that Twickenham is the ‘largest dedicated rugby union venue in the world’, will be valid no longer as the Rams vs Giants game kicks off an initial three-year deal to play a minimum of three regular season fixtures at Twickenham and comes at a time of increased expansion into the British market by the National Football League.

The RFU are no strangers to NFL though as many of the England players are NFL fans and the squad themselves visited and trained at the Broncos facility in July 2015.

The NFL’s agreement with Wembley was also extended last year, with a minimum of two games per year to be played at the national football stadium through to 2020.

And the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, scheduled for completion in 2018, will play host to at least two games per year as part of a 10-year agreement, with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy recently suggesting that a future ground-share between Spurs and an NFL franchise is not beyond the realms of possibility.

But while that particular venture towards north-east London remains further down the line, immediate attention turns to the south-west corner of the city and a new opportunity for a UK stadium to play host to a rapidly expanding sport.

Along with a handful of domestic league games, Twickenham hosts around six or seven England rugby fixtures per year, each one bringing a crowd of over 80,000. The stadium’s role in last autumn’s commercially successful 2015 Rugby World Cup was pivotal, as it hosted several pool stage fixtures and knockout games as well as the final.

“Twickenham is a stadium that has played such an integral role in what has been the biggest Rugby World Cup ever,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, Rugby Football Union (RFU) chief commercial and marketing officer at the time.

“The NFL has a strong and growing fan base in the UK and this, combined with the investments we’ve made in our stadium, will give fans more opportunities to experience the action first-hand at a world-class venue.”

Interest from the UK and European audiences in the NFL International Series is typically high and this year is no different, with general admission tickets to the Twickenham clash selling at lightning speeds.

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The game also represents another opportunity to expose a new set of supporters to the NFL, a cause that will be helped by the presence of superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr who lines up for the Giants.

There will also be an increased focus on the Rams also, after their move from St Louis back to Los Angeles over the summer.

Is it then only a matter of time before the NFL introduces a London franchise?

Logistics would appear to be the main stumbling block for teams playing in England, with teams having the added complication of having to travel internationally for a game week.

The NFL has scheduled bye weeks after the games for those teams that have gone to London in years gone by but with the increased volume of UK-based games, the guarantee of a rest week will decrease. Will coaches and players start to complain if the schedule starts to pile up?

“If our teams aren’t comfortable with the strategy then the strategy will fall apart,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s Executive Vice President, International Operations.

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The game also represents the first time that the NFL UK will have back-to-back games at two different venues in a week.

For now there is no shortage of enthusiasm for the London project and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league’s full-time move to the city could be a realistic possibility.

It is thought that the next step for the NFL is to gradually push the number of games in London to eight, increasing the challenge to produce sell-out crowds. This, along with the obvious difficulties in scheduling, will be the biggest test for league organisers.

And it’s not just Twickenham and Wembley on the International Series venue list this year. The famous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City will also stage a game in November, meaning that the NFL clearly has an eye on further global expansion.

But for now, the agreements in place with Wembley, Twickenham and Tottenham Hotspur would indicate that they have set their sights on planting a flag in London and that they are here for the long haul.

Photos: NFL UK, England Rugby/RFU

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