LONDON – The NFL will make its return here on Sunday when the Jets face the Falcons after a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NFL will stage two matches with the Jaguars and Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium next week. It marks the end of a long journey for the NFL, overseen by Chris Halpin, the NFL’s Chief Strategy and Development Officer.
Halpin said that even though the NFL didn’t play in the United Kingdom last year, the league’s fan metrics remained high.
“We knew the fans understood there was no game last year because of COVID, but you really can’t get away with two years in a row,” Halpin said. “You didn’t want to get away from it, but you couldn’t either.”
The NFL decided to scale back the UK from four games to two due to the uncertainty still surrounding the pandemic. They also decided that Mexico would not have a normal game. Halpin said the NFL worked with the British government as well as its own medical advisors about COVID-19 protocols and trends in infections and vaccinations.
The league announced two games in May, then had to hold its breath about how COVID-19 could disrupt its plans. They were promoted after the Euro Cup, Wimbledon and the British Open were all played in the UK, but the rise of the Delta version raised doubts.
“Positivity rates peaked in mid-July,” Halpin said. “That was the period when we were most apprehensive about whether this would happen.”
Infection rates fell and then flattened in August, casting doubts about the game’s staging.
Fans must be vaccinated or have proof of a negative test in order to participate in the game.
The NFL also developed a plan for teams to reduce the likelihood of any COVID-19 issues. The teams departed the United States on Thursday night, landed here on Friday morning and will inevitably be in a bubble. Jets will only leave the hotel on Saturdays for a walk-through at the stadium. There will be no trip to see Big Ben or go to a London pub.
Kickoff is at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time and the teams will exit shortly after the game. The UK government requires testing within 48 hours of arriving here. The way that time is up, teams won’t have to test until Sunday morning and the results won’t come back even before they go home out of the country. According to NFL protocol, unvaccinated players will be tested every day.
The NFL is on the verge of expanding its international program. The next step is to play regular season games 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. The owners approved a new structure for international games, requiring each team to play an international game once every eight years.
The plan is to hold four games outside the United States – two in the UK, one in Mexico and one in Germany.
“Some owners who initially opposed the international sporting program now support it,” Halpin said. “Especially his view is that if every team has to do this, then there is no competitive issue. Also, they are realizing that it is 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 are very user friendly for the team. “
The Jets were eliminated in this game as the Falcons were to host an international game after being awarded the Super Bowl. The NFL then had to look at Atlanta’s schedule and chose from its non-division games. The Falcons were allowed to defend a game and chose their game versus the Patriots. The NFL picked the Jets and another opponent, and then the NFL schedule makers chose the best fit. Halpin said he likes to have the Jets here because London has a “strong affinity for New York” and the presence of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson makes the game attractive.