Photo via Gaspa's Flickr stream.
This time round our aim is not only doing a really big scale event, but also trying to bring in new fans and trying to grow the sport because it's ultimately not just about putting on a game and selling out Wembley and just being a circus coming to town. This is about creating building blocks for us to become a bigger and more meaningful sport over the long term... This year is probably the most important one of the three in so far as it's the bridge, the step change.
This 2009 instalment, pitting the New England Patriots against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, kicks off in Wembley Stadium at 5pm next Sunday and promises once again to be a high-profile showcase for the sport, but the big changes in the staging of the event will be seen most noticeably across the car park from the stands in and around Wembley Arena where the expanded pre-game "tailgate party", which saw 25,000 fans pass through its doors last year, will feature new, vibrant team areas for each of the NFL's clubs with eye-catching imagery and videos playing of their highlight reels as well as an increased range of merchandise on offer to fans and maybe even a few giveaways thrown in. Kirkwood emphasises that people who come to the games are there to enjoy the NFL as a whole:
I think one of the spectacular things about our game is that in the two so far all thirty-two teams have been represented in jerseys. They'll have their favourites on that day, but they're also wanting to say, 'Here's my favourite team!'. We wanted to put on a spectacle that would allow them to connect with their team before the game and then really focus on the game itself.
Kirkwood believes the UK's involvement with the NFL has come a long way even in the two years since the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants. He's no longer asked why the NFL is here or can its appeal be sustained and team owners in the States have had their minds eased about jet lag and logistics. Major British media players now cover the event as a matter of course, it's nestling into the regular sporting schedule and the NFL's most distant team, the San Diego Chargers, have already visited and performed well. Now Kirkwood can afford to have his eye on greater prizes ahead with the biggest of all a potential NFL team based in London:
There is an absolute prospect for that scenario to take place, but in order to do that every game that we put on needs to be extremely well attended, very well executed from our side and our fanbase needs to continue to grow as a result. If all of those things happen then there's absolutely no reason why we won't get to that stage. But if you and I had sat down and talked maybe four years ago and I'd said 'Well, we'll be putting regular season games on at Wembley and we'll play one a year in 2007, 8 and 9 and here are the teams that'll play and they'll all be sold out', it would have sounded fanciful.
More immediately, there's the very tangible prospect of a second regular season game on our soil, possibly as early as next season, though Kirkwood is understandably reticent on the subject as discussions continue. The Super Bowl trophy, in pride of place at the tailgate party, is a token of American faith in that idea and, if it inspires some youngsters to try their hand at the sport, they might soon find that they can play regularly at the highest level in the Venue of Legends next door.
Although the major tranches of tickets for these games sell out months in advance, there are usually small blocks going on official sale at short notice during the days immediately before the event and this year is no exception. Check the Ticketmaster site a few times a day and you should be able to snag some. Because they're mostly returned from the clubs in the States who had first refusal on them they're available at a range of prices and often in good positions. When we checked at lunchtime today (Monday) tickets were available at a range of prices, so happy hunting!