Nick Westby: NFL extending boundaries and leaving football in its wake

Arizona Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald (left) and Los Angeles' Rams Andrew Whitworth after the International Series NFL match at Twickenham, London which Rams won 33-0.
Arizona Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald (left) and Los Angeles' Rams Andrew Whitworth after the International Series NFL match at Twickenham, London which Rams won 33-0.
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Ten years after the NFL first touched down in London, the 20th and 21st games of the American football regular season are being staged in the nation’s capital.

Firstly, the Los Angeles Rams thrashed the Arizona Cardinals 33-0 at Twickenham last night, and next week back at rugby headquarters, the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings lock horns in the fourth and final game of the NFL’s International Series in London.

Arizona Cardinals' Drew Stanton attempts a pass during the International Series NFL match at Twickenham.

Arizona Cardinals' Drew Stanton attempts a pass during the International Series NFL match at Twickenham.

A decade on and the NFL shows no signs of slowing down what in 2007 was an exploratory venture to gauge the level of interest in the sport outside America. If anything, American football is gaining in relevance, with Twickenham now added to Wembley Stadium as a staging venue, and Tottenham’s redeveloped White Hart Lane added to the rotation when that re-opens in 2018.

Indeed, attendances for the NFL’s visits have held firm – 74,121 being the lowest at Twickenham and 83,000 the average for Wembley games – confirming to the game’s governing body Stateside that British and European interest in ‘America’s Game’ is genuine and here for the long haul.

Talk continues about a franchise eventually coming here, with 2022 the year that is oft-mentioned and the Jacksonville Jaguars seemingly ripe for the move.

They have staged a ‘home’ game at Wembley in each of the last five years and are owned by Shahid Khan, who has a similar stake in Fulham Football Club.

Match action betwen the Arizon Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at Twickenham

Match action betwen the Arizon Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams at Twickenham

Whether two and two eventually makes four or not, and the logistics of such a move and reality are worked out, the NFL’s extended London experiment is yet further evidence of how a league can build on its global image – and something the Premier League can learn from.

The NFL’s first game here in London came around a similar time that the Premier League was exploring the prospect of its own ‘39th Step’ – an extra league game for each club held in one of the many Far East and North American market places where the Premier League is increasingly popular.

A decade on and English football is nowhere nearer to such a bold move, happy instead for its leading teams to play in meaningless pre-season tournaments in Hong Kong, Bangkok and New York to satisfy the curiosity of those fan bases and TV companies.

Even the two rugbys are further ahead in breaking new ground in fresh markets.

Match action between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals during the International Series NFL match at Twickenham (Picture: Steven Paston/PA Wire)

Match action between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals during the International Series NFL match at Twickenham (Picture: Steven Paston/PA Wire)

Rugby league has been the more aggressive of the two, with Magic Weekend and its new Canadian team, but union is catching up, most recently with regular-season games played in Philadephia and Dubai.

If the NFL already has a head start in building its brand beyond its own borders, then it has also blazed a trail when it comes to finding new streaming avenues outside of traditional media.

Last year, the NFL struck a deal with Twitter to broadcast 10 live Thursday Night Football games, meaning as well as fans in America being able to watch the game on the host broadcaster, people all over the world could open up Twitter and follow the live action.

So successful was that experiment that the league expanded it this year to the full slate of 15 games, swapping Twitter for Amazon Prime to test the durability of the live streaming market.

Amazon are said to be in talks to take a slice of the Premier League pie the next time television rights are up for renewal at the end of 2019, and they are not alone, with Facebook also coming online in the race to take live rights which in the last round of negotiating cost BSkyB and BT £8.4bn.

Live streaming vehicles are to Sky and BT what those two satellite broadcasters have been to terrestrial channels in the last few years – the rich kid in class who has all the modern clothes and bottomless pockets.

Amazon and Facebook’s interest in the Premier League rights further emphasises the ever-changing landscape of sport consumption.

The 2019 deal could have the same effect on the future of football in this country as the Sky deal did way back in 1992 with the advent of the Premier League. The Premier League should not shy away from such opportunities. If anything, it should embrace it and test the market now, just as the NFL has with Thursday Night Football.

The Premier League currently has eight Friday night games televised by Sky. Why not from next season strike a deal with Twitter to stream them to people’s mobiles and desktop? Why not invite Amazon to come up with an alternative mode of streaming, to ensure that when 2019 comes around, the governing body have a broader picture of how the televised landscape will change?

It is what the NFL has done over the last 10 years by exploring new boundaries and new media. Not standing still, but being brave enough to innovate and challenge tradition.

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Another area where the NFL stands above our primary sports is in the relationship between clubs and the media.

In the Premier League, a club is obliged to hold one pre-match press conference involving a head coach and a player, and the same for post-match. Reporters can also grab a player as he walks from the dressing room to the team bus – the mixed zone where a cordon separates mere mortals from superstars.

In the NFL, all 53 players on a team are made available to the media within 12 minutes of the game ending. Not only that, but in the locker room, where accredited media mingle with such as super-star Tom Brady. Furthermore, the media get FOUR interview opportunities with players and head coaches during the week.

“Violations of these procedures,” reads the league rules, “will be considered conduct detrimental to the league and subject to disciplinary action by the commissioner.”

If only our governing bodies could be so mindful of the importance of the media...