As we reported on Sky Sports on Saturday night, the NFL has announced the kick-off times for two of the three games to be played at Wembley Stadium in 2015.
And, interestingly, both games will be afternoon kick-offs here in the United Kingdom and, perhaps more notably, 9.30am starts on the east coast of America.
The Week 4 clash between the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets will kick off at 2.30pm on Sunday October 4. Due to the clocks going back in the UK in the early hours of Sunday October 25, the Jacksonville Jaguars-Buffalo Bills clash to be played later that day will start at 1:30pm.
The kick-off time for the Week 8 match-up between the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions on Sunday November 1 has yet to be determined. But it is safe to assume that if that contest is also a 9.30am start in America we are seeing signs of the future when it comes to International Series games.
There are always going to be those who prefer a whole day of build-up before an evening game in London. But I also think there are a great many who will find it easier to get home after the match when they’re walking out of Wembley Stadium some three hours earlier than normal at 6:00pm.
In my opinion, this move to earlier kick-off times is good for the future of the game here in the UK. One of the big priorities for the NFL in the coming years is to grow the game among young fans and to get more schoolchildren involved in the sport. Those are solid thoughts because you always want to grow your fan base and getting more young fans involved is most definitely a good way to go.
Earlier kick-off times will help to achieve that goal. Many people travel a good couple of hours – and often more – to get to the games at Wembley Stadium. It will certainly appeal to more families if they know they can get their children home and in bed by 8 or 9pm as opposed to midnight or even later.
After the Atlanta-Detroit game in October – our early kick-off game in 2014 – I heard many anecdotal tales of inspired and excited children heading out the following day and throwing American footballs around in parks during their half-term holiday.
And you only have to witness the excitement at the NFL’s Play 60 events to understand that there is a genuine interest among children to learn more about American football. I know this on a personal level as my son’s grammar school is kicking off its own after-school American football club this very week.
As well as being good for the fan in the stadium, I feel this move towards earlier kick-off times – and I do feel it is a genuine and sustained move rather than an experimental fad – is good for the television viewer sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon and wondering about the NFL and what it has to offer.
If we end up having three early afternoon kick-offs in London, that will mean three Sundays of wall-to-wall coverage on Sky Sports with triple-header action as games kick off, for example, in Week 4 at 2.30pm, 6pm and 9.25pm.
That kind of coverage is going to make the NFL hard to ignore and is going to help further grow the sport in this country.
Finally, and probably most importantly, the impact of early kick-off games in America cannot be under-stated. Putting the Wembley showdowns in that early slot as a national TV game means they can no longer be ignored or swept under the carpet – they are events that capture and demand the attention of television networks, fans and the NFL owners.
The October experiment worked very well for the NFL. The ratings blew those normally drawn by the Sunday morning pre-game shows out of the water. And, in fact, the Falcons-Lions clash rated higher than six of the seven games in the 2014 Major League Baseball World Series.
With those audience numbers backing up the NFL’s belief that there is a thirst for a new viewing window in the United States, I fully expect our package of International Series games to grow in the coming years.
I have long thought that if we never get a franchise here in the UK – and I still believe it is a distinct possibility that we will get a team we can call our own – we would instead receive an eight-game package of games that would go some way towards appeasing the fan demand on this side of the pond.
The added bonus to the NFL will come if that eight-game package can be carved out of the main schedule – as it will be with these early afternoon starts. That way the NFL can sell the package to another broadcaster and bring more financial benefit to the league as a whole, in much the same way as Thursday Night Football started out as an eight-game package on the NFL Network before being expanded over the years and becoming a joint NFL Network/CBS production in 2014.
There are many different areas to consider when looking at these early kick-off times. But whichever way you approach this move, I think it is a positive for fans, the NFL and the future of the game here in the United Kingdom.
2015 International Series Games
Week 4 Sunday October 4 Miami Dolphins vs. New York Jets, 2.30pm
Week 7 Sunday October 25 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills,1.30pm
Week 8 Sunday November 1 Kansas City Chiefs vs. Detroit Lions, TBC