LONDON — The NFL will make its return here on Sunday when the Jets face the Falcons after a year away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NFL will stage two games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with the Jaguars and Dolphins facing off next week. It is the end of a long journey back for the NFL, one that was overseen by Chris Halpin, the NFL’s Chief Strategy & Growth Officer.
Halpin said even though the NFL did not play in the United Kingdom last year, the league’s fan metrics remained high.
“We knew the fans understood not having a game last year because of COVID, but you couldn’t really get away with that two years in a row,” Halpin said. “You didn’t want to get away with it, but also you couldn’t.”
The NFL decided to scale back from four U.K. games to two because of the uncertainty still surrounding the pandemic. They also decided not to have the usual game in Mexico. Halpin said the NFL worked with the British government as well as their own medical advisers regarding COVID-19 protocols and trends in infections and vaccinations.
The league announced the two games in May, then had to hold its breath about how COVID-19 might disrupt its plans. They were encouraged after the Euro Cup, Wimbledon and British Open were all played in the U.K., but the rise of the Delta variant raised doubts.
“Positivity rates spiked in mid-July,” Halpin said. “That was the period that we were most apprehensive about if it would happen.”
The infection rate dropped and then flattened out in August, removing the doubt about staging the games.
Fans must be vaccinated or have proof of a negative test to attend the game.
The NFL also developed a plan for the teams to minimize the possibility of any COVID-19 issues. The teams left the United States on Thursday night, landed here Friday morning and essentially will be in a bubble. The Jets will only leave the hotel to stage a walk-through at the stadium on Saturday. There will be no trips to see Big Ben or visit the London pubs.
The kickoff is at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time and the teams will fly out immediately after the game. The U.K. government requires a test within 48 hours of arrival here. With the way it is timed out, the teams won’t have to be tested until Sunday morning and the results won’t even be back before they are out of the country on their way home. Unvaccinated players will be tested every day, per NFL protocols.
The NFL is on the verge of expanding its international program. The next step is to play a regular season game in Germany. The league is currently taking bids from German cities and hopes to name a host city around the time of the Super Bowl. Owners approved a new structure for the international games, which will require every team to play an international game once every eight years.
The plan is to have four games outside the United States — two in the U.K., one in Mexico and one in Germany.
“Some of the owners who opposed the international game program at the outset now support it,” Halpin said. “Especially their view is if every team has to do it, there’s no competitive issue. Also, they’re realizing it’s good for their brands, the players are all trying to build their international brands. And real credit to our football operations people and our events people that they’re pretty user-friendly for the team.”
The Jets ended up in this game because the Falcons had to host an international game after being awarded a Super Bowl. The NFL then had to look at Atlanta’s schedule and chose from their non-division games. The Falcons were allowed to protect one game and they chose their game versus the Patriots. The NFL chose the Jets and one other opponent and then the NFL schedule makers picked the best fit. Halpin said they like having the Jets here because there is a “strong affinity for New York” in London and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson’s presence makes the game attractive.