By Keith Weir
LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) – The NFL roadshow rolls into London again next week for the first of three games designed to build its international fan base and lay the foundations for a team in the British capital.
The Oakland Raiders face the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium on Sept. 28 and the home of English soccer will stage a further two NFL clashes over the autumn.
The NFL has been playing regular season games in London since 2007 but the interest among European fans means that another fixture has been added this year.
“We’re playing at Wembley with an 84,000 capacity. For three games, we’re selling a quarter of a million tickets which is basically the sort of inventory most teams are selling for half a season,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president, international.
That level of demand naturally prompts renewed speculation that London could become a permanent home to an NFL team.
Waller, a Briton in charge of overseeing the game’s international growth, believes such a move would be positive but is careful not to set any target date for when it could happen.
“If I could be in London watching a hugely important game of a team that is based out of London competing in the National Football League, I think that is an exciting concept,” he said in a telephone interview.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE EXAMPLE
Waller notes that the growth of the elite Champions League club competiton in European soccer over the past two decades underlines the demand from fans, sponsors and broadcasters for top quality action from international locations.
“It feels like what we have to offer fits in a space that is going to keep on growing,” he said.
“The team that does it has to be competitive,” he added, aware that the novelty would wear off if a London team failed to match rivals on the field.
Waller would not be drawn on how a London franchise could fit into the NFL’s 32-team format. The focus, for now, he said was on showing that regular trips to Britain could fit into the NFL schedule and not put too much strain on players.
In this year’s London programme, the Detroit Lions will play the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley on the last Sunday in October, before the Jacksonville Jaguars meet Dallas Cowboys in November.
The Jaguars are owned by Shahid Khan, who bought west London soccer club Fulham last year and is one of a growing band of U.S. businessmen who have invested in sports teams on both sides of the Atlantic.
The latest London trip comes when the NFL is having to contend at home with negative headlines and pressure from sponsors over its handling of domestic violence cases involving some of its athletes.
Waller acknowledged that the NFL had to be careful to protect its image but added that its leadership had proved its worth on many occasions.
“Any bad publicity in any area is a danger and a risk if you don’t respond to it and rectify it,” he said.
“I believe we work incredibly hard to do what is right for the game, and for the game in the long term.” (Writing by Keith Weir, Editing by Ken Ferris)