LONDON — Football is in the land of futbol to stay — and with an even bigger presence if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has his way.
When the San Francisco 49ers take on the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, they'll be the latest teams that went across the Atlantic to do their part in helping the league grow its international fan base.
And despite the long travels and disrupted team schedules such a trip brings, the NFL is charging ahead with plans to increase the number of games it plays overseas.
This Sunday marks the fourth regular-season game to be played in London, and Goodell said the success of the previous three sellouts has buoyed his hopes to succeed with his ultimate expansion goal — having a full-time franchise in London.
"Each year, the different barometers indicate that our popularity continues to rise," Goodell said at an annual sports conference the NFL organizes together with The Economist magazine in London. "I think the next step will be multiple games (in Europe). And if that's successful then I think the idea of a franchise here is realistic."
He just has to get the players and teams on board first, which may not be all that difficult.
Like the teams that came before them, the Niners and Broncos have only had good things to say about their trans-Atlantic trip — focusing more on the team-building opportunities than the jet lag and time spent away from home.
"I've never been out of the country, so this is definitely a good experience and opportunity," Niners cornerback Nate Clements said. "And I look to take advantage of this and make the most of it."
Of course, it's not exactly easy to bring the full NFL circus abroad.
Traveling logistics are one of the biggest challenges for teams coming over for games, highlighted by the Niners (1-6) and Broncos (2-5) choosing drastically different strategies for how to approach Sunday's matchup.
San Francisco arrived on Monday and has spent the week in a five-star hotel in the countryside outside London, getting adjusted to the time difference and practicing on a field with the same wet and slippery conditions expected at Wembley.
The Broncos, meanwhile, chose to stay home longer and only arrived Friday.
"Everyone was kind of like walking zombies off of the flight," Broncos offensive lineman Chris Kuper said. "Once we catch up on sleep we should be fine. We got two days to catch up on sleep."
The Niners have the added disadvantage of being listed as the home team, meaning they get one less game to play in San Francisco. But with the city turning the spotlight to the Giants playing in the World Series, it's not a bad time for the struggling football team to explore new surroundings.
"When you look at where we are right now as a team, it is nice to be able to get away and come here, and be able to sort of regroup as a team internally," head coach Mike Singletary said.
Goodell acknowledged it's "painful" for teams to give up a home game, and said that's one of the reasons the NFL is considering expanding its regular season schedule to 18 games. That would let teams have eight home games even if they go abroad.
Sending teams so far to play in front of foreigners may seem extreme, but Goodell insists it's the best way to connect with international fans — especially because most of them never have a chance to play the sport themselves.
"That is one of our challenges, how do we promote a sport that is not played by the youth in each of those markets?" he said. "But I think that's where media and bringing our game to those markets meets those challenges. We've seen it here in this marketplace, we've seen it in Japan, Mexico and Canada."
Goodell would not give any hints about a timeline for putting a team in London, "other than as fast as is practical."
"Once we've got the logistics, which I think we have, then it's just a question of the growth of the marketplace," Goodell said. "And that's where we believe playing multiple games will demonstrate that there is a strong foundation for American football. Fans want to see it, there are partners that will support it. ... And when you can get to that point, I think you've given yourself a great deal of confidence that a franchise here would be successful."
So would players be willing to come play for a team based in England? Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton thinks so.
"London is a great place because you're going to have to find a combination of a city where people want to live and play for that team and I think this would be a great choice," Orton said. "You've got to find a city that you can get 53 guys that kind of want to live over here. London's a great city and I think you'd have a lot of interest from players."
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