Alistair Kirkwood: NFL history maker

Alistair Kirkwood's history-making career with the NFL began with the simple writing of a letter. But this was no ordinary sending of a CV.

This was a bold and risky move that would set the NFL on an international path that has now seen 31 of the league's 32 teams play 28 regular season games in London, the formation of the International Player Pathway programme that has sent the likes of British defensive end Efe Obada (Buffalo Bills) and German fullback Jakob Johnson (New England Patriots) to the league, the launch of the NFL Academy, the unveiling of a dedicated Sky Sports NFL channel and a high-profile terrestrial TV presence through the BBC's award-winning 'The NFL Show.'

Kirkwood, who steps down as NFL UK Managing Director next week after more than two decades with the league, delivered an emphatic message back in 1999 and that is one reason this article is interspersed with messages back to a man who has worked tirelessly to grow the game on these shores.

Never one who was afraid to take a risk, Kirkwood takes us back to the beginning of his NFL story: "I had to do a three-month work placement as part of my Master of Business Administration degree. I wrote to the NFL and said, 'Here are the 10 things that you are doing wrong internationally. I'm available for three months and I can fix two of them.'

"NFL Europe President Bill Peterson then invited me to an Amsterdam Admirals game and I was taken up into the royal box at the Arena. It was a strange interview because we were both looking out onto the field watching the game. Whatever I said worked and they offered me the placement. I worked as an intern and didn't get paid – I was the only one on my university course not to get paid for their placement. But I was a fan and it was literally a labour of love. My project was on the flawed business model of NFL Europe and I got an A grade for it.

"It was great fun and I sat in some very important meetings. And I learned that none of the 10 things I had put in the letter were right, once I was inside and understood the dynamics. I did a decent job (Alistair instigated Amsterdam's move to orange jerseys more synonymous with the Netherlands during his internship) and, about three months later, I got a call about a new position and started working in London in the March of 2000. I just tried to do something different to grab people's attention. There was definitely a risk to it, but also a reward."

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What the players say:

"Alistair is a pioneer and a visionary of American football. He will forever be the roots of NFL UK as it continues to grow. His legacy can never be erased. He took the National Football League and made it international. Although he's too modest to admit, he is the reason myself and many other people are where we are today. Thank you, Alistair. I will forever be indebted. You saved my life." – BRITISH DEFENSIVE END OF THE BUFFALO BILLS, EFE OBADA.

"Alistair Kirkwood is an amazing man with a huge heart! He changed the meaning of football in the UK. His fingerprints will be on everything for generations of fans and players." – FORMER PROFESSIONAL RUGBY PLAYER AND PITTSBURGH STEELERS INTERNATIONAL PLAYER PATHWAY TIGHT END CHRISTIAN SCOTLAND-WILLIAMSON.

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Kirkwood joined the NFL at a time when working on the NFL Europe League was the priority, as he explains: "That was our actual job back then and NFL UK was something that went completely under the radar.

"The first time I went to New York, I had a deck prepared that asked, 'Why can't we do more in the UK?' The London Monarchs had closed two years before and Sky was only showing one game on a Sunday evening. It was all a bit scattergun and the audience numbers were really low. And yet the UK market was so vibrant for sports in general. I had a deck ready and got told by someone, 'Whatever you do, don't present that. That's career suicide.'

"It wasn't for another two years when I was brave or stupid enough to present that deck. It was a 19-page deck that I presented to Roger Goodell when he was the NFL's Chief Operating Officer and I rolled the dice. I got an agreement to get some investment around the Super Bowl being back on terrestrial TV and if I hit a magical number, I could come back with a three-year investment programme."

Kirkwood gambled on good viewing figures for Super Bowl 37 with the big game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders being aired on Channel Five in January, 2003. At the end of an innovative marketing campaign that included, among other things, scratch and sniff beer mats that smelled of dirt and sweat being placed in pubs across the country; the return to terrestrial TV was deemed a success.

And that led to even bolder moves from Kirkwood and his team.

"I lobbied for the Arizona game that went to Mexico in 2005 and while we were unsuccessful because the Cardinals always wanted to go to Mexico, it was really good reps," Kirkwood explains. "We put a pretty punchy document together even though we were too early to do it."

After securing a long-term TV deal with Sky Sports in 2006, NFL UK threw its hat back into the regular season games ring ahead of the 2007 campaign.

"With that TV deal, New York saw the UK as a potential big market," Kirkwood recalls. "We had a really good narrative. Wembley was being built and we positioned it as launching the new national stadium. There was a belief that the UK could be the right market. It was given conditionally. We were told if the game was played successfully, we could have another London game in four years' time. We just accepted it and said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"

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What the celebrities say:

"Alistair Kirkwood re-shaped the NFL in the UK. Regular season games, player pathway, NFL Academy. He moved the sport forward in the UK and deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame as a groundbreaking innovator for the league. He is a good friend and a gentleman." - TV PERSONALITY, CHICAGO BEARS FAN, FORMER LONDON WARRIORS SAFETY AND CO-HOST OF THE FUMBLE PODCAST VERNON KAY.

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The first regular season game in London was played on a rainy night as the New York Giants – on their way to Super Bowl glory at the end of that 2007 campaign – defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in front of a packed Wembley Stadium that could have been sold out several times over (500,000 fans registered an interest in buying tickets within 24 hours of the announcement of the first London game).

There was no need to wait another four years. The league was back just 12 months later as the New Orleans Saints recorded a 37-32 win over the San Diego Chargers on another rain-soaked night. And, with the exception of a global pandemic in 2020, they have been back every year since. And will return time and again in the future.

And now we're up to 28 games featuring every team apart from the Green Bay Packers. While most of us could never have dreamed of such a journey, Kirkwood had supreme confidence in the UK from day one and has not been as surprised by the growth. In fact, he planned for it and boasts the evidence to back it up.

He explains: "The document I shared in 2002 literally told Roger Goodell that we would build the market up to the point where we would develop an international player pathway, we would develop an academy, we would have multiple regular season games and eventually look at ideas that were a pipe dream back then such as a Super Bowl or a franchise.

"It was probably brave and stupid to put it out there, but it was in writing. I put it out there to show we were not just doing this to be successful in the short term, but for the long term. The reality is that I had no idea how it was going to go.

"My belief was in the market, the fan base and the sport. I've always believed that this is the best sport in the world and it should be massively popular. I believed that the fan base was such that existing fans would want to get behind this and were insatiable in their support for it and we could make this attractive to new fans. It's not like we executed everything perfectly because there are always variables thrown at you, but I had an unwavering confidence in the fan base. That was the core thing."

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What the fans say:

"On behalf of Fins Nation UK, I would like to thank you Alistair for all the work you have done in bringing the NFL to the UK. Without you, there would be no International Series and without you we would have no NFL UK Live stage shows which, as fans, we can honestly say are superb. What the London games have given us now are friendships that span more than just football, so thank you for that. The football community thanks you for all your service – without you, we wouldn't be the family that we are." – MARTIN LYDDON, MIAMI DOLPHINS FAN FROM FINS NATION UK.

"I've been a diehard NFL fan for 33 years and have been to almost every London game. Having seen this sport go from nothing to what it is today is absolutely incredible. Alistair Kirkwood has managed to bring 31 of the 32 NFL teams over to the UK and sell out Wembley Stadium, Twickenham and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But, most importantly, he helped build a community that is now massive. He has allowed me to meet friends who are close friends for life. Alistair's legacy and what he built will always be remembered. I speak for everyone in this NFL community in thanking you for everything you have done and that is still to come because of your work." – STEWART LOVE, PITTSBURGH STEELERS FAN FROM EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND.

"What Alistair Kirkwood brought to NFL UK would have seemed impossible to those of us watching the NFL in the 1980s. Sure, things can still improve, but it's hard to overstate how lucky UK fans are today. Thanks Alistair!" – UK RAVENS.

"Alistair Kirkwood got the ball rolling and gave me the opportunity to watch many NFL games live. He built the International Series in the UK and for that he is a legend." – @PITTSYNFL VIA TWITTER

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Those who have worked alongside Alistair over the years – and I consider myself fortunate to have done so since May 2000 – know that he tends to drop football analogies into the day to day running of the NFL UK office. He would often talk of us facing a fourth and long, calling an audible or operating a two-minute offense with the game on the line.

With that in mind, Alistair has some Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in his DNA. He worked tirelessly to reach lofty heights but could sometimes be guilty of immediately beginning the journey towards the next success story.

That drive not only led to a succession of games featuring the biggest stars in the NFL, it also sparked mammoth fan events around the contests such as the Trafalgar Square Fan Rally, the NFL on Regent Street and the NFL UK Live stage show tours around the UK and Ireland 

The native of Dunblane, Scotland, admits: "In hindsight, I probably didn't enjoy it enough at the time. Every time we put on a great game, everybody would quite rightly be high-fiving and hugging and there would be relief because you put so much work into it. And I'm the guy who says, 'Let's meet at 9am on Monday and here are 12 things we didn't do well.'

"I'm wired that way. I'm never fully satisfied and always feel we can do better. That has its plusses and minuses. I also just wanted to push the envelope as much as possible. We put a lot on our shoulders. I wanted to keep trying as many things as possible."

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What the future say:

"The game of football has completely changed my life, from BAFA to the NFL Academy in London, high school football in Florida and now to Division 1 FBS football. This sport has given me a career plan and something I loved and had a real passion for. It all started playing American football in south London as a youth having been given the opportunity to watch live NFL games in London, which was a great experience. I have had the opportunity to reach this stage because of the growth of football in the UK, with great coaches and mentors to help me along my path." – SEYDOU TRAORE, BRITISH WIDE RECEIVER AND FORMER NFL ACADEMY PLAYER NOW AT ARKANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY.

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As he reflects on more than two decades of historic work with NFL UK, there are many moments and achievements that make Kirkwood proud. And it begins with the fans.

"I did want to be the most fan-friendly sport," the long-time Buffalo Bills fan stresses. "I'm very proud of the fact that all 32 teams could be represented at our games, you could sit side by side and tease each other and it was all well-intentioned. I loved the fact that families could come to games. We positioned it as a more inclusive sport."

As well as listing the early Super Bash parties in London and the Coach Stilo educational website among lesser-highlighted achievements he is proud of, Kirkwood points to inaugural London games played across the capital as moments to cherish.

He explains: "The first game at each stadium because there were so many unknowns at Wembley, Twickenham and Spurs. It's not just a game – because we are taking over stadiums that, with the exception of Spurs, are not built for our sport; there is so much that goes on behind the scenes. So, there is more nervousness and then more proud feelings that we actually pulled it off.

"Then they threw so much at us like triple back-to-back games or four games per year. We went from one game to two games to three games and four games in consecutive years. They were big jumps and big moments. I felt confident we would be fine, but I couldn't swear that on The Bible.

"International Player Pathway is probably the thing that has given me the most emotion because you get to know individuals and you really root and care for them. The NFL Academy is also something special as I have wanted to do that for 18 years."

Alistair Kirkwood entered the NFL as a passionate fan of the sport of American football. He steps down with the same love for the game. And while he has indeed changed the global face of the NFL and totally and utterly transformed the sport in the UK, he remains modest in summing up his time in charge.

Kirkwood concludes: "Back in 1997, I wrote on a Channel 4 forum as a fan that I was really upset they were canning the NFL. I never thought I would have a career in the NFL, even when I was interning. It's one thing to be upset as a fan, it's another to be in a privileged position to try to do something about it.

"It's a nice arc in some ways. I was really upset that the sport was no longer going to be shown on free-to-air TV and then you get the chance to bring so many games, do so many things.

"Ultimately, leaving a place in a better position than when you found it is the minimum you should expect. I'm looking forward to being a fan again."

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What the media say:

"I want to congratulate Alistair Kirkwood on his remarkable legacy. He's taken the NFL to new heights: the Academy, the sold-out stadiums, The NFL Show and his overall love for the game in the UK. The game wouldn't have the following without him. I wish you all the best, my friend." – FORMER NFL DEFENSIVE BACK AND PUNDIT ON THE AWARD-WINNING 'THE NFL SHOW' JASON BELL.

"Visionary, risk-taker, loyal, humble. Just a few of the ways you could describe Alistair Kirkwood. All of us who love the NFL are indebted to him and his vision of football as a truly international game. All the best on your next chapter." – HAMILTON TIGER CATS SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR AND SKY SPORTS NFL PUNDIT JEFF REINEBOLD.

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