Talk Of London-Based NFL Team Heats Up With Bears-Bucs Set To Face Off
With the Bears and Buccanners set to face off Sunday at Wembley in the fifth NFL International Series game in London, the idea of an NFL team being based in the city is “being talked about openly by the sport's senior executives, who on Wednesday were guests at the House of Commons, talking to MPs about how the sport's profile can be further raised in the UK,” according to Ian Shoesmith of BBC SPORT. 49ers co-Owner John York, whose team played at Wembley last year, said, "We will increase the number of games to at least two (per season) and to encourage at least one of the two games to have a team that comes back for a minimum of three and possibly as many as five years in a row." He added, "Obviously having a franchise here is a long-range plan." NFL CMO Mark Waller said, "Our job is not to pick clubs -- it is to create the platform and then those clubs and those owners that are interested (in moving) will put themselves forward." British American Football Association Head Gary Marshall is “confident that a UK-based team would help retain interest in the long run, but also thinks that more investment is needed at a grassroots level.” Marshall: "There are over 6,500 members in the British American Football Association and it's going up year by year. At university level it's gone up by 50% over the last four years and it's showing an annual growth of around about 10% with new teams being set up all the time” (BBC.co.uk, 10/20). NFL Network's Kara Henderson reported the U.K. “wants American football to be a part of their way of life, so much so that they have crossed party lines to create a group in Parliament to support the development of the sport there.” All-Party Parliamentary Group Chair Richard Fuller said, "We hope to be able to develop participation in the sport at a grassroots level, create opportunities for British players to reach their full potential in the sport and support the pathway to having eventually a UK-based NFL team" ("NFL Total Access," NFL Network, 10/20).
CROWD CONTROL: NFL U.K. Managing Dir Alistair Kirkwood insisted that the "success of the sport continues to grow in this country even as he prepares for a Wembley game that has not sold out for the first time." Alistair said that he "expects attendance to be in the 'mid-70,000 range.'" The game "was only confirmed in August due to the labour dispute that at one stage put the NFL season into doubt during the summer, and that has hugely affected the usual ticket sales process." Alistair said, 'Normally we've been announcing games in December or January, and then been taking advantage of the Super Bowl interest, when our sports is at its most relevant and popular in UK fans' minds." But he added, "To get an attendance up in the mid-70,000s is up there with any other major sporting even now taking place in this country so that's a great testament to the fans coming out, and the fact I'm having to justify it shows how far we have come" (London DAILY MAIL, 10/21). Guardian reporter Paolo Bandini said after playing games in the U.K. for the past four years, the “buzz is good among a certain community.” Bandini: “There’s some anxiety actually this year because the game hasn’t sold-out which is the first year that hasn’t happened. But there’s some reason for that. Obviously, the announcement came late with the lockout and there’s been other factors." He noted the game is “definitely growing” in the U.K., and the television audience for NFL games “has grown by 25% just this year … so it is on a rise, but we started from a reasonably low point.” Bandini said there is "probably enough support” for having an NFL team based in London, but added, "I just don’t know about the realities of flying from the West Coast to London on a regular basis” (“NFL Live,” ESPN, 10/20).
TRAVEL LOG: Bears CB Charles Tillman said, “I don’t think a professional (American) football team in Europe would make it. And to play teams in the States? The distance, things like that, would probably be the main concern. I would like to be traded to a London franchise. But I think the travel, if you have to play someone like the Oakland Raiders, way on the West Coast, I think that’s what you’re getting into.” Bears LB Brian Urlacher said, “It’s a long trip. If I wanted to go there I would rather go in the off season when I can actually enjoy it. Because we are going over to play a game we’re probably not going to do a whole lot” (LONDON TIMES, 10/20). Bucs coach Raheem Morris indicated that his team has “embraced the hardship for the good of the game.” Morris said, "This thing is a little bigger than the Bucs. It's more about the NFL promoting that game and anything that's going to promote our game, I'm all for it. … You've got a young Bucs team coming out to London, setting an example, it's awesome. Unfortunately for our fans back at home, it was a home game. But somebody has to do it, somebody has to suck it up and it was us this time.” He added, "I don't know if it'll be an annual trip or not” (ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, 10/20). 49ers President & CEO Jed York was asked if he would request that his team “play there is the near future” since his father, John York serves as head of the league’s Int'l Committee. York: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we go back, but that’s something that the league will work with all the different teams on” (CNSBAYAREA.com, 10/19).
SEEING THE SIGHTS: Bucs GM Mark Dominik said, "There's a lot of advancing by members here, the NFL-UK getting us set up. It's been a tight ship here and really nice in terms of meeting space. The pitch. It's a small, three-minute walk. I think it's very convenient, the players have enjoyed it and I think the players have taken to it the right way” (TAMPABAY.com, 10/19). The Bucs’ cheerleaders on Thursday toured London and performed “during the interval at Selhurst Park" during an English soccer match between Crystal Palace and Bristol City. The Bucs players were “embarking on a sightseeing tour to the likes of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Horse Guards Parade and 10 Downing Street” (London DAILY MAIL, 10/20). The Bears did not depart for London until Thursday, and coach Lovie Smith said that he “believes it's the right approach.” Smith: "For us, we wanted to keep -- as much as we could -- a regular game-week routine in place. That’s what we’re doing. As far as getting acclimated, you can bog your mind down with all of that talk, but we’re going to go there and be there Friday. We’re leaving Thursday from here and that’s plenty of time” (TAMPABAY.com, 10/19).