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Column: NFL’s bridge to London continues to make inroads with eclectic and dedicated fan base

Osi Umenyiora couldn’t walk a block in New York without being recognized. He was an All-Pro defensive end with two Super Bowl rings.

But in London, where he relocated after his NFL career, his name had almost no ring to it at all.

“Nobody knew who I was,” said Umenyiora, 37. “It was almost like starting anew. I was able to live like a normal individual. It was really cool.”

That’s starting to change. As the NFL continues to gain popularity in the United Kingdom, Umenyiora, who hosts two American football shows for the BBC, has become increasingly familiar. In a way, he’s a human barometer for a sport that’s beginning to move the needle here — though it remains miles behind soccer, and even rugby and cricket, in terms of fan interest.

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“Now, I get recognized by maybe one out of 10 people on the street,” said Umenyiora, sitting this week in the glass-walled offices of the league’s London headquarters, where he does a weekly podcast with former New York Giants teammate Jason Bell. “A lot of them know me from somewhere. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re Osi.’ But they’re like, ‘I know you. You’re the NFL guy.’ ”

As the Rams prepare to play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Wembley Stadium — the 28th matchup since the NFL began staging regular-season games here in 2007 — the league’s devotion to the market is increasingly clear.

Todd Gurley, who faces lowly Bengals run defense in Week 8, hasn’t had 100 rushing yards in a game since a NFC playoff win over Dallas last January.

“It’s grown on so many levels, from the sheer number of fans to the knowledge of fans,” said Neil Reynolds, anchor of NFL coverage for Sky Sports, which airs five games live every week. “I believe the fans here in the U.K. are as knowledgeable as anywhere in the world.”

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The games have a celebration-of-football feel, with fans wearing the jerseys of virtually every team, including lots of throwbacks from players who were big in the 1980s — Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Walter Payton, William “Refrigerator” Perry …

“The way fans are here, the way the stadium is, the way the week is before the game, that doesn’t exist anywhere unless you’re playing in a conference championship game or the Super Bowl,” said Bell, a former UCLA cornerback who played seven seasons with three NFL teams and is now a financial advisor and part-time TV football analyst in London.

“The players feed off of that. No matter what anybody says, they look up into the stands and are seeing that. It’s got to give them extra motivation.”

Although there’s little indication a franchise move here is imminent, the league’s commitment to London is undeniable. In 2015, it agreed to a decade-long partnership with Tottenham to play at least two games per season in the soccer club’s new $1-billion, 65,000-seat stadium, which opened this year. The venue features a dedicated football field that lies under a retractable grass soccer pitch, as well as NFL-specific locker rooms, training rooms, coaching booths, and the like.

London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with an NFL playing field.
The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers played at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Oct. 13.
(Alex Burstow / Getty Images)

Of the four NFL games in London this season, two are at Wembley and two at Tottenham. According to Chris Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer, the Tottenham games were 12 times oversubscribed in terms of ticket sales and sold out in 45 minutes.

“In a lot of ways, Tottenham is a manifestation of the fan base that’s been built and the position of the NFL in the U.K.,” Halpin said.

“Those first two games, the energy, the experience, the noise of a knowledgeable, engaged British crowd, in a first-class stadium, with the digital experience, the fan offerings, and the closeness that you would find in a best-in-class U.S. NFL experience being offered was truly exceptional.”

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That doesn’t necessarily mean a London team is the pipeline. There’s no appetite among current owners to expand the league beyond 32 teams, and there isn’t a team looking to move. That’s not to say it will never happen. The Jacksonville Jaguars, for one, have shown a great deal of interest in the London market. But there are a host of issues to work through, chief among them the travel distance, especially for West Coast teams.

“The issue for us still is: Can we do this competitively for the team that is based there, but also for the 31 other clubs,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this year. “That involves scheduling, it involves a lot of other matters that you don’t want to compromise. And until we can get comfortable on that, I don’t think we’ll be NFL-ready in London.”

It will be interesting to watch how London will be factored into the new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players. The idea of a 17-game season is on the table, and that would mean upsetting the current balance of eight home and eight away games.

If the league were to go to 17 games, that extra game could be used for international inventory, events that could take place in London, Mexico or perhaps Germany, China or elsewhere.

Teams that relocate are obligated to play international games while their venues are being built in new cities. That’s why the Rams and Chargers, along with the Las Vegas-bound Raiders, recently have played one “home” game per season outside of the U.S. Every team except the Green Bay Packers has played a regular-season game in London.

“I just feel like the league is laying down such roots now,” Reynolds said. “When we had the American Bowl games back in the late 1980s, the exhibition games back in the old Wembley Stadium, the NFL would come into town, sell a bunch of T-shirts and hats, and then go. Now, it’s not like that. It’s a real foundation here.”

Former Rams assistant Zac Taylor, 36, is winless as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, but feels improvement is obvious except on their record.
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The numbers reflect that. According to league research, there are more than 15 million NFL fans in the U.K., including four million “avid” fans. Sky Sports weekly ratings have doubled during the past decade, and overnight TV viewership, including the league’s RedZone channel, rose 32% during the 2018 season.

There’s nowhere near the saturation the NFL enjoys in the U.S., and football is a blip when compared to the popularity of soccer here, but it’s a start.

“The people who are fans out here, they had to go digging for information,” Umenyiora said. “You have to be a real fan to do that. So the fans here are die-hard. They know everything about the sport. The ones who are really fans, I’d say they’re more knowledgeable than quite a few of the American people because of the work they had to do to just become fans.”

As for London landing a team?

“I think maybe go to five, six, seven games, and see what that’s like,” Umenyiora said. “I’m not sure the fan base here is ready for one particular team. If that team decides to lose, then what happens? We need to grow a little bit more to say whether the fan base is strong enough for win, lose, whatever.”

In the meantime, he’ll enjoy a life of relative anonymity, a bona fide NFL ambassador with the rings to prove it.


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