The UK Wants an NFL Franchise, It Just Doesn’t Know It Yet
A Colossal Missed Opportunity Thus Far
I have been to the NFL at Wembley 3 times in the last 4 years (2012 — Rams and Pats, 2013 — Vikings and Steelers, 2015 — Lions and Chiefs). I love the NFL. I love the sport (so much so I subjected myself to a Bears Raiders game when I was in Chicago last year!). I love the way in which it is packaged and sold in the US, the athleticism of the players and the system of parity that means no team is (entirely) irrelevant for more than a few years at a time (other than the Browns..).
However, despite this love of the game each Wembley experience has been slightly disappointing. There is an incredible opportunity for the NFL in this country that they seem to be missing year after year. Compared to the way in which the Sport is given such prominence in the US and the build up that each game receives the attempts to entice a British audience have felt half-assed. The existing method doesn’t work, it won’t work until the NFL and NFL UK change their approach.
Only then will the NFL stand a genuine chance of establishing itself as a major player in the UK sports industry.
So what is the current situation?
A mediocre musician(s) is thrown out to tide over an audience anxious for the imminent sporting spectacle. In a stadium, the size of Wembley this doesn’t work. Few artists could pull off filling this enormous arena with their musical talent so it is no surprise that Tinie Tempah, Train and most recently Little Mix have fallen short.
Then come the cheerleaders. A profession that many American girls dream of from a young age, yet on this side of the Atlantic the reception is different and the associated appreciation of a much different kind. Years of over-sexualisation and stereotyping from ‘Americana’ film and media have fostered a view that cheerleaders are there to maintain the red blooded American-ness of the spectacle, something to ogle whilst the players get some much needed oxygen. This is to do an injustice to their grueling athletic exhibition.
The novelty of the sport and the big day out to Wembley also seem to quickly wear off. This has changed over the few short years I have been going. The audience have become increasingly well educated in the sport. Their understanding has expanded and they can appreciate the sports nuances. However, the fact remains that in a country attempting to adopt the native sport of another, once you scratch past the manufactured and superficial surface of a Regent Street (a main street in London) takeover, player meet & greet and Sky’s improving coverage, the UK audience doesn’t have a good enough understanding of the sport’s tactics and strategy. This means the crowd is quick to lose interest and American sport staples such as the attempted crowd rally, the blaring music between series and the incredibly frequent appearance of t-shirt launchers does little to improve the mood beyond the 1st quarter.
What are the other obstacles?
The Language: Brits have no idea what the hell a ‘nickel formation’ or a ‘tight end’ is and until the UK media finds a way to ease them in and relay the message in a context/language they can understand they will continue to have no idea.
The (inconsistent) Speed: Yes the plays themselves are athletic (some spectacularly so) but the time outs and the continuous stopping/reviewing of plays doesn’t fit with the fluidity that British fans are accustomed to seeing in their sports (soccer, rugby). To an extent this is nonsensical given this nation’s appreciation for cricket (yawn) yet American football is packaged and sold as an exhilarating white knuckle ride and what it delivers in the flesh is less engaging.
Banned substances: The recent increase in public scrutiny towards the use of banned substances and blood doping techniques (Lance Armstrong and Russia/The Olympics) means that many new viewers are put off by the frequency of stories about players being banned and the inconsistency with which they are punished. It is difficult for the British public to relate. Where as Le’Veon Bell might get a 4 game ban for smoking marijuana, a rugby player in the English Premier Division can expect to sit out for a season if found to violate drug-related policies.
Squad Sizes: 53 men in one team is a lot in comparison to the most popular British sports. Yes each team has a core group of 6 or 7 key players, the ones that commercial models are built around so that even when the team doesn’t perform, the money continues to roll in (Texans — JJ Watt, Bengals — AJ Green, Rams — Todd Gurley, Cowboys — Dez Bryant/Romo etc) but there are also 45 or so people that fewer people are bothered about. Let’s compare that to mainstream British sport — Football (soccer) has squads of 25 whilst cricket teams have 17 players in their Test squads. Rugby squad sizes (35–42) are not too far from that of the NFL, but it is the nation’s 3rd favourite sport in terms of annual viewers and lags far behind football in terms of commercial revenue potentials.
3 Games per Year: If the NFL is serious about London as a permanent home for an NFL team then they need to play more than 3 games a year here. The current sample size is not a fair indication of if a resident team is realistic. Each NFL team plays 16 games in the regular season, that equates to 8 home games. If an NFL team was to based in London it would need to attract a crowd for those 8 home games. The NFL needs to test this. 3 games a year with 6 different teams feels like a travelling show. It comes, it’s fun whilst it’s there but it is gone before you know it.
Appreciation is growing for the NFL in the UK. However when you consider the commercial potential, a snail may consider the current pace of growth slow. To help win over the UK crowd a larger effort needs to be made in the field of basic education around the sport. The plays, the tactics, the implications of missed kicks, the prospective fan base will take to the sport much quicker and more genuinely if they have a clue what the hell is happening.
As previously mentioned, I make no bones about the fact I am an American Football fan. I would love for an NFL team to reside in London, for all the associated media production and press coverage that would bring. However, I only want it to happen if it has staying power. A one-and-done season of a London team would taint the idea of teams being based abroad which is why the NFL needs to push the boundaries, increase the amount of games played abroad. The worst that happens is some money is lost. An organisation the size of the NFL can afford to lose some money in the short term if it provides a good indication of long term gain.
I finish with a request, please Mr Goodell don’t send us the Jaguars.