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RFU aim to reach new audience by staging NFL at Twickenham

NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood believes the league will be 'closing a circle' by taking American football to Twickenham on Sunday.

The home of English rugby will host the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants this weekend in the 16th NFL game to be played in London since 2007 - but the first to be played away from Wembley.

"It's really nice for our sport - born from rugby - to go back to it's spiritual home," Kirkwood told Press Association Sport. "It feels like we're closing a circle."

Sunday's game will be the first non-rugby sporting event ever staged at Twickenham, an opportunity and a challenge for the stadium's managers.

World famous amongst rugby fans, the 'Cabbage Patch' will get a brand new audience when millions of NFL fans tune in to watch.

"This is an opportunity to put the stadium on a bigger map," Stephen Brown, the RFU's chief officer business operations, told Press Association Sport.

"We're very careful about the events we hold here. There's a special nature to the sport we play. This is a first to hold another sport here but there is a good opportunity to have a sport which is similar to our own but is also something a bit different.

"We want to have big, high-quality events here and this is absolutely that, with a global impact."

The game is also being seen as an opportunity to sell that new audience on rugby.

"We have an investment in US rugby and we're helping them grow as a sport in the US market," Brown said. "These are two sports with lots of big athletes kicking and carrying a ball so they're not dissimilar and there are a lot of people who could be playing our sport within that market.

"This is an opportunity to engage with the US market and that ties in with our strategy."

Getting this 107-year-old stadium ready for its NFL debut has been a significant task. From converting a bar area into a locker room big enough for a 53-man team to creating new disabled fan areas higher in the stands - the usual pitch-side ones would have zero visibility - rugby's Headquarters has undergone a minor facelift.

Sunday is the first of at least three NFL games that will be played at Twickenham in the next three years - a number which could rise to five - and the investment is seen as a long-term deal.

For fans who have been enjoying NFL games in London for a decade now, Sunday's shift in venue offers something fresh.

Twickenham is a very different venue to Wembley - a more compact stadium with less space around it - but the NFL is still keen to put on the full game-day experience, even if it will be different to what fans have come to know.

"It adds a few more wrinkles, but it's really exciting," Kirkwood said of the challenges of moving somewhere new after a decade of honing the Wembley routine. "It's kind of like starting again. At Wembley we've got a tradition and experience, but now we have a new challenge and we can't just do the same thing."

Moving some games to Twickenham is part of the NFL's ongoing process of exploring all options in London, allowing it to increase the number of games played here in the short term and consider all the possibilities for a potential franchise in the long term.

With Tottenham's new stadium due to enter the picture in 2018 as well, those options are increasing.

"We have had a great relationship with Wembley and continue to do so," Kirkwood said. "We're really looking at this through the lens of having a stated ambition to play multiple games here every year. We need to have options so we can play whenever the schedule allows."

With Wembley itself preparing for next weekend's match-up between the Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals, NFL UK has found itself helping two different London stadiums prepare to host games at the same time.

"It's crazy," Kirkwood said. "When we started I could never have imagined playing multiple games or two games on back-to-back weekends. I certainly wouldn't have thought we'd be playing at the two most iconic stadia in the UK."


From Belfast Telegraph