Annual London NFL game in jeopardy

BY Alex Marvez • February 8, 2011

US football fans aren't the only ones hoping the NFL can reach a labor agreement with its players union.

The NFL's annual game in London is on hold until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

Chris Parsons, the league's vice president of international business, told on Tuesday that the NFL is planning for a 2011 matchup at Wembley Stadium. But the chances of playing that contest will gradually diminish if the current CBA is allowed to expire March 4 and a work stoppage ensues.

"We are going through the preparation right now," Parsons said. "We are working with the (NFL) scheduler to make sure if we do get the CBA done by a certain time that we will actually be able to execute that game. Normally we announce the game at this time of year, but we've chosen not to do that because of the uncertainty."

Parsons said there wasn't a specific drop-dead date in which the NFL would have to abandon plans for a London return. Handling the logistics involved will be smoother than in previous years because the NFL has held London games for four consecutive seasons. Wembley Stadium has traditionally hosted the contest in late October, but that time frame isn't a lock for 2011 because of the CBA situation.

"We're going to hold out to play the game as long as possible," Parsons said. "The closer it gets to the start of the season, the harder this gets to do."

Parsons said the game's two participants are undetermined. Miami, San Diego, New Orleans, New England, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Denver and the New York Giants have played at Wembley Stadium since 2007.

"The good thing is we've got teams that still want to go," Parsons said. "Teams that have gone have had good experiences, so we've seen some momentum from that."

The lack of a London game would disrupt the momentum the NFL has gained in the market. All five of the previous Wembley Stadium contests were sellouts. The league also is expecting a record rating for Super Bowl XLV in the United Kingdom (final numbers are still being tabulated). The FOX telecast set a US television record with an average viewership of 111 million.

Super Bowl XLIV drew a UK viewership of 3.5 million, which was an increase of 1.5 million from Super Bowl XLI before the London games began. The BBC aired a Super Bowl preview show for the first time last Saturday and drew an average of 1.3 million viewers. A Monday recap show drew an average of 1.1 million viewers.

The Super Bowl and two soccer championships (Champions League and FA Cup) are the only three sporting events that air live on both free (BBC) and cable/satellite television (Sky Sports). The rating for NFL postseason games on Sky increased 60 percent from last year.

The NFL still has a long ways to go before growing beyond a niche sport in the UK But Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator in CBA talks, recently reiterated that the league could eventually have a franchise based in London.

The NFL scrapped plans of playing two games in the UK last season, but the league hopes to broaden its international schedule starting in 2012. Such expansion would be made easier if the league adopts an 18-game regular-season schedule, which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has pushed in CBA talks with the players union. However, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said last week he was opposed to an 18-game schedule largely because of safety concerns and the potential shortening of player careers.

"Extra inventory of games would give us extra flexibility in scheduling from the time we play during the course of the year to the absolute number of them," Parsons said. "But whether we go to 18 games or not, we're going to still look at trying to expand the program."

Parsons said the NFL still plans to hold a 2011 regular-season game in Toronto, with the Buffalo Bills hosting. The Bills signed a five-year, $78 million agreement with Rogers Communications in 2008 that would bring eight home games (five regular season and three preseason) to Toronto, which is a two-hour drive from Buffalo.

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