If you needed any evidence of just how quickly American Football is growing in the UK, then you need only look at the latest International Series game to be played at Wembley last Sunday. The latest instalment, the 12th NFL game to be played here since 2007, between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, provided another glaring reminder of the popularity of the sport. It now holds a fixed place as one of the highlights of our sporting calendar.
In front of another sell-out crowd, the Jets continued their impressive start under new head coach Todd Bowles. During the comfortable 27-14 win a bulldozing Chris Ivory posted his best career figures for a single game. It was a game that proved to be the end for Miami’s fourth year head coach Joe Philbin who was fired after the defeat, a result which saw the Dolphins slip to 1-3 on the season.
It also provided a stark reversal of fortunes for Philbin who masterminded the Dolphins’ victory over the Oakland Raiders under the arch last September, a result which contributed to the immediate sacking of then Raiders coach Dennis Allen.
Had the 2015 Rugby World Cup not coincided with the NFL season, then there would have likely have been four games at Wembley this season, instead of the three we have. The Jets-Dolphins clash provided a first for UK NFL fans as well as for the International Series, as it was the first time a divisional clash has been held on these shores.
The league are taking the unusual step of scheduling the second and third International Series games, on 25 October and 1 November, on consecutive Sundays – another indication that they’re continuing to test the viability of a UK franchise. Meanwhile, the NFL announced recently that it will also pass a resolution to keep on hosting games overseas until 2025.
Last week, with the other two fixtures at Wembley to come, talk was already turning towards the 2016 schedule and inevitably the question of whether the NFL’s commissioner Roger Goodell would up the number of games in London next season. The answer looks favourable.
Not only has Goodell been a huge advocate of using the International Series to expand the NFL’s global appeal and fan-base, but it has been suggested that the league’s brass are also considering the possibility of hosting an NFL game elsewhere, with Mexico looking the most likely destination at this moment in time. It would not be a completely alien prospect, as Mexico hosted an NFL game back in 2005.
This season there is more NFL coverage on UK television than ever before, and NFL programming on Sky Sports has also increased. Elsewhere, engagement and participation in American Football at club and university level is at an all-time high, and it remains one of the fastest growing university sports. Not bad for a sport that, before 2007, barely registered in the UK sporting consciousness.
Other possible destinations for NFL games include Germany, so it is clear that London only figures as one part of the growing NFL brand overseas.
Whether we see a franchise outside of the United States remains to be seen, but one thing that is certain is that it is firmly on the agenda and is already being discussed as a genuine possibility. As for the International Series, should it expand to more countries as has been the suggestion, then it would surely have a similar impact to what we have seen since the first game was played here in 2007. Its commercial appeal and global recognition are on the increase and with that comes a new generation of fans.
Every year the International Series continues to grow, both in terms of its matches and its popularity. And all signs point, when NFL bosses make their announcement, to a fourth game in London next season.