MA in Sports Journalism at St Mary's University

Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

David Tossell discusses NFL Europe, London franchises and NFL UK’s future vision

On a cold and wet November day in London, the National Football League (NFL) UK offices are quiet and calm. Expecting a vibrant hub of activity, the PR and marketing team are chatting amiably over a coffee.

With the final NFL International Series game in London finished, David Tossell — head of PR for NFL UK — and his staff are taking stock of another hugely successful year, as all three fixtures enjoyed bumper attendances of over 84,000 at Wembley.

The serenity around the office belies how hectic it is preparing for such high profile events. But for Tossell it is all too familiar, having held his current position for 23 years, and also working extensively for NFL Europe.

The lifelong NFL fan began his working life as a journalist, and has written a whole host of biographies about leading sporting figures, including Tony Greig, Alan Ball and Sir Stanley Matthews. But a role with the NFL was one he always coveted.

“In November 1995, folks at the the NFL contacted me and said they are looking for someone to head up the PR in Europe. They asked me if I was interested,” David told the Sports Gazette.

“I was very interested. They happened to ask me on the day that the newspaper I worked for — Today — was closing down, so it kind of made it a bit of a no-brainer.”

From there he was thrown right into the deep-end that was NFL Europe — first known as the World League. Although the challenge of trying to make sure the London Monarchs or Amsterdam Admirals could fill out their games with fans, there is one story in particular that stands out from his time there.

“One of the first things we did in my time there was sign William Perry, ‘the Refrigerator,’ for the London Monarchs,” David said. Perry was a Super Bowl winner with the 1985 Chicago Bears. He continued: “We thought let’s get the best known player to play for the Monarchs and maybe that will get the ticket sales going.

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“We did a PR tour with him over here and his wife insisted that he wouldn’t be interviewed or pictured with any adult females.

“I remember spending a Sunday afternoon in our office showing her a video of Lily Savage — a drag character played by Paul O’Grady in the 1990s — convincing her that it wasn’t a real woman. It was a man in a dress and, therefore, it was okay.”

Other NFL legends such as James Harrison — 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers — Hall of Fame Quarterback Kurt Warner and all-time leading points scorer Adam Vinatieri all played in NFL Europe before making their names in the NFL. 

But while there was success for a short period of time, the financial reality led to its demise. In 2007, NFL Europe finished. The new venture for the NFL was the International Series, with the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants debuting the first game at Wembley. Despite wandering into the unknown, the transition was smooth.

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“We launched a website around the Super Bowl where people could register their interest and put in their bid to buy tickets, and within 72 hours we had 500,000 ticket requests.”

The NFL in the UK has continued to rise in popularity, with 24 games played since 2007, the Wembley fixtures averaging over 80,000 fans and the Twickenham events over 70,000.

With such a popular attraction comes logistical challenges, and while Tossell believes he and NFL UK are in a groove, the unique problem of having different teams competing each year is something that remains an issue.

“Every team is different. So we might have two teams using the same hotel in consecutive weeks, but our operations people have to totally reconfigure.”

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For the last few years, there is serious talk of an NFL franchise coming to London. Driven by the massive spike in popularity of the International Series and the consumption of NFL content in general, this is something that Tossell and NFL UK are keenly aware of.

Instead of a scripted, corporate answer, he is candid and clear about their mission statement. London is “franchise ready,” but ultimately it is out of their hands.

“If a team is going to be in London, it is almost certainly going to be an existing team relocating.

“We could go to an NFL owners meeting with the commissioner and give a long presentation about how great London is, but if an NFL owner doesn’t put his hand up and say ‘I want to do it’, it won’t happen.”

There is a similar sentiment in regards to the logistical challenges of having a franchise in London, with Tossell saying: “These are the things we can’t test for, we won’t know until we actually do it.” But he reaffirms that these are challenges they are ready for, and there is a clear vision for NFL London.

“Our overall vision is more and more people consuming more and more NFL on a variety of platforms. If you look at how TV figures have grown in this country, Sky Sports have seen a great improvement in their ratings over the last year or two, and we’re getting great reach through the two shows on BBC.

“We’re seeing more people buying products, more people subscribing to gamepass — £140 per year pass for bespoke NFL content —  and we’re selling more tickets than ever at Wembley matches.”

We talk for a while longer about the impact of Tottenham’s new stadium – the NFL signed a ten year deal with Spurs to play games at their stadium in 2015 – and Tossell states that he wants this to go beyond the NFL.

The key factors aside from giving greater options for stadiums is, “To put down stronger community roots… and help with the regeneration of the Tottenham area.” 

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But what is clear in talking to him, is that David Tossell is someone with full confidence in his vision and his ability to oversee a sporting behemoth as it continues to gain more and more traction here in the UK.

Featured photograph/NFL/Michael Zemanek