LONDON (AP) – The famous arch rising above Wembley Stadium is becoming an increasingly familiar sight for NFL fans.
The London venue has become the trusted vehicle for the league’s annual efforts to drum up more overseas interest. Heading into the first of two regular-season games at Wembley this year, it’s clear that stadium officials want to see a lot more of the NFL as well.
With the league expanding its annual international series from one game to two this year, the usual questions arise whether one day the league will expand to London. And while the league says any such decision is several years away, Wembley officials say they’ll be ready if the day comes.
Squeezing in a full slate of home games on Sundays shouldn’t interfere with the stadium’s commitments to host England’s national team soccer fixtures and other events, Wembley’s managing director Roger Devlin said Monday.
“Absolutely we can,” Devlin said in an executive box overlooking the Wembley pitch. “I am absolutely confident if (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell wanted to have a franchise here we could absolutely deliver on it.”
Known for being England’s national football stadium — the other football, played with a round ball — Wembley started staging regular-season NFL games in 2007. On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings play the Pittsburgh Steelers, before the Jacksonville Jaguars face the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 27.
It is the first of four games over four seasons in London for the Jaguars, raising the prospect of the Florida team one day uprooting to London, where owner Shad Khan bought Premier League club Fulham in July.
The two 2013 games sold out within hours, which Devlin said is a sign of the rising popularity of the NFL in Britain. Sunday’s game matches a pair of 0-3 clubs.
The “core fan base” in the U.K. is now more than 2 million, according to Chris Parsons, the NFL’s senior vice president of international.
That’s more than double the figure when the league first brought regular-season games to Wembley in 2007, but still not high enough for a franchise here to be sustainable.
“We’ve doubled our fan base in the last 3 1-2 to four years,” Parsons said. “I’d like to see that at least double again in the next three or four years. That would put us among the top five sports in the U.K. in terms of core fan base.”
While having a full-time franchise in London is still “clearly an option” for the NFL, Parsons cautioned that there are no immediate plans.
“There are several steps we need to continue to take before we get to that deeper conversation,” Parsons said. “We’d like to play more games every year as we move forward. … Once you’ve got a sizeable fan base, the options are then much more available to you to do certain things.”
Even if it doesn’t get a full-time franchise, Wembley has its sights set on another major target: hosting a Super Bowl. That is, if the league ever decides to move its showcase game abroad.
“They are a very progressive organization so long, long, long term they might consider (a Super Bowl in London), but it’s a hell of a call,” Devlin said of the NFL. “Absolutely … if they bring it anywhere in the world we want it here at Wembley.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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