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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 17:30 GMT
UK venues in line for NFL first
By Matt Slater

Wembley Stadium
Wembley missed its 2006 date with the NFL but will be ready in 2007
The UK has emerged as the front-runner in the race to stage the first competitive NFL game to be played outside the American continent.

The NFL's 32 team owners voted last month to play two regular-season games a season outside the US from 2007.

Building delays at Wembley put a one-off game on hold this season, but the stadium is now almost finished and could host a game next autumn.

NFL UK boss Alistair Kirkwood said the UK was "guaranteed to have games".

Speaking to BBC Sport, Kirkwood said: "The question is when, not if. There is nothing guaranteed for 2007 but it's between us and one other country, and I think we're the front-runners.

"Favourites have lost in the past but our cushion is that if we don't get it in 2007, we'll get it in 2008.

"But we desperately want it in 2007. The sooner we get (a game), the sooner we will feel the benefits."

We need this platform to get away from the cobwebs of people assuming we were an 80s phenomenon

Alistair Kirkwood
NFL's London office
At the time of the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans, the four leading candidates for the first game were Canada, Germany, Mexico and the UK.

Kirkwood now believes the field has been reduced to two, with the British bid leading.

The NFL staged its first and, until now, only competitive game outside the US in 2005, when the Arizona Cardinals played the San Francisco 49ers in front of 103,467 fans at Mexico City's Aztec Stadium.

With this season's proposed game at Wembley cancelled, there have been no international NFL fixtures in 2006 but there is one on the schedule for 2007, a pre-season friendly between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots in Beijing in August.

London hosted pre-season NFL friendlies in the 1980s, the decade when interest in American Football first flowered in this country.

With English football marred by hooliganism and live sport on TV relatively rare, the newly-arrived Channel 4 helped spawn a generation of gridiron fans with its ground-breaking coverage of the sport.

An NFL fan outside Mexico City's Aztec Stadium
The NFL's first real foray abroad drew a huge crowd in Mexico City
The old Wembley, in fact, staged the NFL's first officially sanctioned pre-season game outside the US in 1986 when the world champion Chicago Bears beat the Dallas Cowboys.

But that interest waned in the late 1990s as football fought back - copying ideas like the NFL's "Monday Night Game" along the way - and British gridiron teams, such as the London Monarchs, failed to take hold.

Enthusiasm for the NFL in the UK, however, is on the rise again - TV ratings and sponsorship revenues are up - and Kirkwood is convinced the sport is set for a resurgence in this country.

"If we stage a regular-season game we will get the kind of broad media attention that we haven't had for many, many years," he said.

"We've done friendlies in the past and that helped launch the game here, but fans are so much more knowledgeable now and have more choice - it has to be a competitive game for it to really resonate.

"Unless you're an indigenous sport, and you are in the hearts and minds of the public, you have to keep raising the bar.

"If we can get a big-name team to come over we can break through the clutter of other sports.

We would want to come back in 2009 and 2011 - we're looking for a home

Alistair Kirkwood
"I think we could be somebody's second or third favourite sport. You can be an Arsenal fan, a Chicago Bears fan and a Bath rugby fan. It's complementary. We play at different times.

"But we need this platform to get away from the cobwebs of people assuming we were an '80s phenomenon."

The most likely sites for the game, which will be held on a Sunday in late September/early October next year, are Wembley, Twickenham and Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

"Wembley will obviously be the hot topic," said Kirkwood.

"It's a brand new stadium, with great hospitality potential, but Twickenham is only 8,000 less in capacity [82,000 to Wembley's 90,000] and it's a great NFL-type stadium too.

"But we're not looking at this as a one-off game. We would want to come back in 2009 and 2011. We're looking for a home."

That kind of commitment will not come cheap for Kirkwood's UK operation.

NFL teams, which work on a strict revenue-sharing basis, only play a guaranteed eight home games a season. These games are almost always sold out, with average attendances being over 68,000.

The plan for the international fixtures is that the 32 teams will play one 'home' game each over a 16-year period, with each team being compensated for the loss of a home game.

William Perry
William Perry's arrival in 1995 failed to make any lasting impact
"It will be an enormous investment but truly transformational in terms of reaching out to a much wider fan-base," he said.

"This is bigger than a Premiership game being played in the US. They only have eight home games a season and with their gates it's like every game being Chelsea v Manchester United.

"So it's not just a case of what's the value from a UK point of view, it's a question of how much value you take out of the US, and that's huge."

But Kirkwood is certain the benefits for the NFL and this country more than outweigh the costs.

The proposed game will kick off at 1800 BST, which is 1300 on America's East Coast, and will be live on US television.

With attracting American visitors the recently announced priority for London's tourist agency, live coverage of an NFL game at the new Wembley is the stuff of marketing men's dreams.

Kirkwood and his team now have six weeks to finalise their choice for a UK venue and find two NFL teams willing to take the transatlantic plunge.

A decision on which country has got the nod for 2007 will be made by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell before this season's Super Bowl in early February, with next season's schedule being announced in March.

Until then Kirkwood will be joining his Football Association equivalents in praying for a speedy completion to the Wembley project.

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