London ready for latest NFL dress-rehearsal

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THE NFL returns to London for the third straight year on Sunday as organisers bid to prove the city is capable of one day hosting a team full-time.

The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off at Wembley a little over six weeks after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told American media that a London franchise was a "realistic option" in the future following the success of the international series so far.

Sunday's game is again a sell-out, defying the effects of the credit crunch, and NFL UK boss Alistair Kirkwood is hoping to use the event to prove the sport's popularity is continuing to grow rapidly in this country.

If he can do that, London could host two regular-season games as early as next season as Kirkwood looks to keep building.

"We're going to have 85,000 people in the stadium and that will be excellent because by 2010 or 2012 I think we need to move to two games a year," he said. "Although a single game is a massive event for us to put on, we have to make it lead somewhere."

As things stand, the NFL has no commitment to remain in London going forward, but Kirkwood believes the success of the two games to date, plus the rapid pace of ticket sales for Sunday, ensures the question is not whether the league will return next year, but for how many games.

NFL team owners, who will always have the final say on any plans, can be hard to persuade, mainly as one of them must sacrifice a home game in order to cross the Atlantic, but Kirkwood is optimistic. "I think everybody sees the positives of what's come from this so far and everybody understands we need to do more to build things up," he said.

"The challenge will always be to secure two home teams so that's why I'm saying it might not be until 2012 that we see two games, but I'm fairly confident we'll get to that stage by then.

"Once you have two home games be as successful as we've been with one, the season here feels longer and then you can keep building."

Kirkwood is not willing to predict whether a London franchise will ever come to fruition, but admits that is the logical conclusion if the games continue to be successful and the NFL keeps expanding its presence on these shores.

"If we drop the ball or disappoint, then they might not go as hard at this as they have done, but the commissioner has talked in the last few weeks about a potential London franchise and that's what you'd like to aim for," he said.

There is certainly no sign of the novelty of these annual games wearing off for fans.

The presence of the Patriots, the league's most successful team in the last decade and the most popular team among British fans, ensured another year of swift ticket sales.

But there are also encouraging signs beyond just this game. The league's viewing figures on Sky Sports are up 55 per cent on last year, while Five has doubled its own ratings despite cutting coverage down to one game a week.

Five has compensated for less live coverage with a weekly magazine show, while BBC Five Live Sports Extra now also broadcasts live commentary every week.

That growth, Kirkwood believes, is a direct result of the regular-season games the NFL has brought to Wembley.

"If I had thought two or three years ago that BBC radio would be doing live commentary not just on the Super Bowl but from week one of the season, I'd have been delighted," he said.

"It shows we're getting closer to being an established sport here and if we didn't have the Wembley games, that wouldn't be happening."

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