Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the NFL hope the next fortnight will prove as they return to the UK for the first time since the autumn of 2019, after coronavirus forced the 2020 International Series into retreat.
More broadly speaking, and in comparison to many other sports, the NFL got off relatively lightly during the pandemic. There was huge logistical disruption, virtual drafts, empty stands, opt-outs and outbreaks, but they were one of the few major sporting competitions on the planet to start and finish on time.
With a Union-Jack-clad helmet on, however, the timing felt cruel. Last year was the first time since the league took regular-season games overseas in 2007 that London did not host professional American football, an unwanted void coming just months after the launch of the Barnet-based NFL Academy and the opening of the first purpose-built stadium outside North America, landmark developments that had put unprecedented momentum behind the growth of the game in this country and cemented the capital’s place as the international home of the sport.
At a time when Brits were forcibly detached from the local cricket or football clubs, the NFL suddenly seemed a million miles away. And yet, interest held strong. For its live games, Sky reported an average weekly ratings increase of 34 per cent through the 2020 regular season, while February’s Super Bowl was the most watched in the UK for 30 years, in contrast with the US, where the game was the least-watched since 2007.
One half of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium’s two-in-one facility may have been chronically underused in its existence to date (so far, the ground has hosted more permanent managers in its home dugout than it has NFL games on its state-of-the-art retractable pitch), but ticket sales for its second run of games have been strong, despite inevitable hesitancy that comes with booking anything in advance amid an evolving pandemic and the lack of travelling American fans.
Indeed, that a small number of tickets were still available in the run up to the game this week was due largely to unsold returns from the quartet of franchises involved.
That just those four teams will cross the Atlantic this month for two games, compared with the eight that made the trip for four in 2019 or seven that would have last year (the Jacksonville Jaguars were due to play back-to-back matches in London — an NFL first) might seem a little underwhelming, but is the product of a cautiousness the league felt was necessary at the time the schedule was confirmed in early May, when Brits still could not sit on their own indoors in a pub, let alone with 60,000 other people in a stadium.
Given Mexico, which has hosted three games in the past five years, has not been deemed ready for a return, perhaps we should count ourselves lucky. The NFL are committed to hosting at least four overseas games every year from next year as part of an expanded 17-game regular season.
The new structure will work on a rotation that means every franchise play one international game every eight years, so even the homebird Green Bay Packers, the one team yet to play in London will have to fly the nest sooner or later. But the UK has serious competition for those fixtures, as the NFL look to explore other growing markets.
There will be a return to Mexico, and possibly Canada, while Germany could host its first game as early as next year and South America is also an option further down the line.
Still, a 10-year deal with Tottenham means that at least two games are London-bound for the foreseeable future and the 17-game expansion also gives franchises licence to take games abroad off their own back, an option that, in the short term, seems most likely to be taken up by the Jaguars.
Talk of a permanent London franchise has understandably cooled, the pandemic not exactly feeding any owners’ appetite for the challenges relocation would bring.
But after a hiatus, the capital remains front and centre of the NFL’s global future and, for the next two weekends, a stage for their present as well.