LONDON - The NFL selected the cities Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich on Tuesday to enter a final bidding stage to host a regular-season game in Germany.
Next season is the target for Germany to host its first game, though it could also debut in 2023 because of potential scheduling conflicts with soccer's World Cup, which begins next November in Qatar.
"After an initial period in which expressions of interest were received from multiple cities, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Munich have been invited to proceed to the ‘candidate phase’ of the process," the league said in a statement. "Those cities will now participate in deeper conversations about staging games in Germany."
Germany has a strong and growing NFL fan base and one of the world’s largest economies, making the country a logical target for a league with visions of worldwide growth.
"I hope we'll see a game in Germany in 2022. We're on a course for that to happen," Brett Gosper, NFL Head of Europe and UK, said Tuesday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Along with the potential conflict with the World Cup, "there might be other obstacles that emerge during this process," Gosper said. "So we're cautious to say we're definitely in 2022, but it certainly won't be later than 2023."
The decisions on a German city and date for a game are expected to be announced at the Super Bowl in February, Gosper said. A host city recommendation must be approved by NFL team owners.
France, Spain and "the Nordics" are also in the league's longer-term sights to host games, Gosper told The Associated Press last week.
Tuesday's announcement comes during the NFL's return to London after a one-year hiatus because of the pandemic. The Atlanta Falcons beat the New York Jets 27-20 on Sunday at Tottenham, which will also stage the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins this Sunday.
Representatives of the three cities will come to Sunday's game as part of an observer program.
Germany's largest city was not among the eight that formally bid after the NFL announced its intentions in June.
"Berlin decided not to show an expression of interest," Gosper said. "It seems that they were not keen to engage in a competition, so that was their choice."
The NFL urged German bidders to form a consortium between the region, the city and the stadium owner with the goal of establishing a long-term partnership. The stadium is the key factor, along with infrastructure and ease of travel.
Tottenham’s state-of-the-art facility was custom-built to host soccer and NFL games with capacity of 62,850. There are seven years left on the club's 10-year contract to host two NFL games annually.
The NFL has played 29 regular-season games in London since 2007 and the majority of them have been held at Wembley Stadium, which can hold more than 80,000 fans.
Germany has become a growing source of athletes for U.S. college football programs and had five teams at various times in the former World League/NFL Europe/NFL Europa. New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson is German, as is defensive end David Bada of the Washington Football Team.
After Germany, the league’s analysis has shown that France would be the next logical European host, followed by Spain and "the Nordics are very strong, too," Gosper said last week. Those markets have high growth rates in viewership and fans, as the NFL tracks consumer figures for products like Game Pass and the video game Madden.
Thus far, the NFL has played 39 international regular-season games: 29 in London, six in Toronto, and four in Mexico City.
The NFL plans to return to a schedule of four international games beginning next season, a move facilitated by the expanded 17-game schedule.
The extra game coincides with the league's offer to teams to seek specific international regions for exclusive marketing rights.
Even beyond those four international games, teams could volunteer to play home games abroad especially if they've been granted marketing rights in a foreign city or country.
"They have the possibility from ’22 onwards to activate commercially in international markets. They haven’t had that right until now," Gosper said. "There might be five or six teams each in Germany and in the UK who decide to come here and activate, and they may well wish to put games on to accelerate that activation possibility."
Chris Halpin, NFL chief strategy and growth officer, said Tuesday that they are evaluating foreign-rights proposals from "well more than half" of the league's teams. An announcement is planned in December with teams being granted five-year licenses taking effect in 2022.
NFL teams with existing links to foreign regions, for example, might be inclined to play more home games there, as Jacksonville has done in London. The Jaguars have played eight times at Wembley Stadium; Sunday will be their first game at Tottenham.
Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who also owns English second-division soccer club Fulham, made an offer to buy Wembley Stadium three years ago.