Earlier this month, on the eve of the new season, the broadcaster announced a deal to screen its own version of the iconic Monday Night Football for the next three years, bringing American football into its portfolio for the first time since 2009.
Back then, International Series fixtures at Wembley were still a novelty and the league certainly did not have a purpose-built home on British soil, nor a flagship academy.
American football was niche - a sport whose watchers had largely retreated into the shadows after the popularity of the 1980s had faded, and emerged in the dead of night to watch matches while normal people slept.
Devout NFL fandom in the UK in 2020 is still a semi-nocturnal pursuit - so much so in fact, that host Kirsten Watson says it has had a direct impact on the direction in which they’re trying to take MNF.
“We want to feel very connected and conversational,” she says. “It's obviously very late at night in the UK, so we want to keep you guys engaged. If we're just being very serious and uptight and just giving you football stats, the chances are our fans might fall asleep!”
But the sport has become increasingly mainstream. Sky’s coverage is more comprehensive than ever, bolstered by a new dedicated 24/7 channel, while the personalities that lead the BBC’s have become so recognisable that Osi Umenyiora has won Royal Television Society awards for his punditry, while Jason Bell has reached a state of celebrity sufficient to take the Strictly dance floor.
Such a staple of the sporting calendar have they become, that the absence of this year’s London games at Tottenham and Wembley (because of the coronavirus pandemic) will be noted as a deviation from, rather than reversion to, normality.
Maurice Jones-Drew, MNF’s regular pundit, was part of the Jacksonville Jaguars team that first came over to play at Wembley in 2013, starting a run which has seen the franchise visit every year since and, if not quite establish themselves as ‘London’s team’, then certainly build up enough support to make those long road trips feel more homely.
“Going back last year, and seeing the Jaguars play the Houston Texans and seeing all their apparel and merchandise, it was amazing to see just how much that one team's fanbase has grown over there,” Jones-Drew says.
“Then going to pubs before and after the games and seeing how many people stay up to watch all the games was awesome to see. I would have never fathomed that going there in 2013."
The surge in popularity has convinced Channel 5 to re-enter the fray, though its coverage differs markedly from that of its competitors in that it does not rely upon a leading British voice; Sky’s matchday shows are presented by renowned NFL broadcaster Neil Reynolds, while the BBC’s are fronted by Mark Chapman, one of the most highly-regarded TV and radio hosts in the sports industry.
What might seem a gamble speaks of the authenticity that the show show is trying to achieve, with its high level of assumed knowledge and little dumbing down of analysis.
“The analysis comes from always educating,” Jones-Drew explains. “We want to entertain as much as we can because we're on television but the education aspect of it is important too. If you understand what the game is and how it's played you'll be more in tune to stay up later and watch.”
Indeed, save for the Union Jack-branded balls in the foreground, someone flicking idly through the channels after getting in late from the pub (granted, they might have had to take the scenic route home for it to be sufficiently late in the current climate) could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a US network.
In fact, though the show is made in Los Angeles, it is produced exclusively for a UK audience, as becomes apparent in certain mid-game interludes, such as Efe Obada’s guest appearance last week.
“We are American and we can only be ourselves,” Watson adds. “So, there are things we are also learning about the British audience and fans throughout the UK, and making sure that we are connecting and being relatable. But no matter what we have to be ourselves and that has to come across.”
Jones-Drew agrees: “We want to be something similar to late night television in the US - we want to bring energy, we want to interact, we want to have fun, we want to tell jokes.”
But if a workman is only as good as his tools, then the success of the programme is surely, in part, enslaved to the calibre of fixture it has to serve up.
Good job then, that in week three of its return, it’s been gifted an absolute power drill of a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, teams led by the last two league MVPs, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
Many believe it will prove a dress rehearsal for the AFC Championship game in four months’ time and the latest instalment in a rivalry that could dominate the conference for the next decade. That it finds itself in this prestigious Monday night slot speaks volumes in itself.
“That's the NFL saying, 'These are the two premier teams in our league',” Jones-Drew says. “Channel 5 and the NFL wanting to do this is because of these players and what they've put together over the last couple of years.
“These two teams and these two quarterbacks - you have an MVP and a Super Bowl MVP on one side and then an MVP on the other side - you rarely see that happen.”
Surely, that’s worth staying up for.