It’s five years since the NFL took the huge step of entrusting a genuine, regular season game to London and now the consistent sell-out crowds at Wembley are being rewarded with a second fixture for 2013. Not only will the Jacksonville Jaguars begin their four year tenure with a tilt against the San Francisco 49ers in the now traditional slot at the end of October, but they will be joined by the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday September 29th.
After last year’s player lockout threatened the Wembley sequence until it was almost too late to organise the game, this announcement gives British fans and administrators, and indeed Wembley and its staff, a huge vote of confidence as the St Louis Rams prepare to fly in to Heathrow next week, ready to take on the New England Patriots in two Sundays’ time. If you don’t already have a ticket for that, keep an eye on the NFL UK website as a few, final seats are often released very close to game day as the participating teams finalise what they will and won’t need from their allocations.
The NFL estimates that the Wembley games have helped to grow the UK fanbase to more than two million regular followers, representing a thirty-two percent increase even in the past two years. Live games are now shown on Sky, Channel 4 and the BBC with viewing figures also rising sharply, while the Super Bowl, the NFL’s season finale, has almost doubled its UK audience since the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants in London five years ago, despite the showpiece occasion being transmitted in the early hours of a February Monday morning.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have never played on these shores despite their popularity over here and their success-studded history, but the Minnesota Vikings are already a vital part of the history of the NFL in this country. They faced a team from St Louis (the Cardinals, now in Arizona) in the first ever NFL friendly fixture at the old Wembley Stadium in 1983 in front of around 30,000 fans, surfing the wave of novelty and enthusiasm generated by Channel 4’s trailbalzing coverage which had begun twelve months earlier. At the same time, London’s first local American Football team emerged with the London Ravens holding training sessions in Hyde Park before embarking on eight years of games at Stamford Bridge, Richmond Athletic Ground and the Copthorne Stadium in Barnet, including the first UK international game against a team from Paris. Now that the NFL’s investment in the UK has expanded, London fans can hope that a fully-fledged professional successor to the Ravens based in London has come a significant step closer.