Saturday 16 December 2017

American football: Invaders making the 1980s fashionable again

Its popularity bubble burst once, but the NFL is now determined to make their game a top-three sport in the UK, writes Sean Ingle

There was a moment in the mid-1980s, around the time that yuppies started braying into mobile phones the size of breeze blocks and the Big Bang went off, that American football in the UK exploded.

Millions watched week-old highlights on Channel 4. William 'The Refrigerator' Perry, a 22-stone tugboat, became an unlikely celebrity. Dan Marino, then one of the game's biggest stars, even held a training camp at Luton Town football club. And then, like acid house T-shirts, 'Hi-De-Hi!' and other '80s curios, the bubble burst.

A generation on, American football is again moving the chains in Britain. The NFL has a battery of statistics -- a 154 per cent rise in viewing figures since 2006, a 4.3m combined TV and radio audience for last year's Super Bowl and a 32 per cent increase in its "avid fanbase" of supporters in the UK to make its case. But its actions speak louder than numbers.

This month, the NFL announced it would play two regular-season games at Wembley in 2013. A spokesman hailed it as a "historic step in international development".

It was also a major statement of intent. "The success in the 1980s was a freak and an accident, and we came out of fashion as quickly as we came in it," NFL UK's managing director, Alistair Kirkwood, admits.

"We're now trying to build something sustainable and credible. London will stage a quarter of regular season home games from 2013. That's a big statement. It shows we are committed to growing the sport in the UK."

The plan seems to be working. Five live games are now shown on British TV screens a week -- three on Sky, and one each on the BBC and Channel 4 -- and another 80,000 sell-out is expected for today's game between the New England Patriots and St Louis Rams, the sixth instalment of the International Series jamboree at Wembley that started in 2007.

"There's not a comparable major sports league trying to grow in the way we're doing using competitive games in a non-indigenous market," Kirkwood says. "We are trying to build a substantial foothold in the UK using something that's extremely valuable in the United States.

"Our viewing figures on Sunday night in the US are higher than The X-Factor and American Idol, so to ask a team to give up an eighth of their season allocation is a major thing. But the UK has a very sports-savvy market. Friendly games won't do for this generation. It has to be the real thing."

There is still a way to go, as the Rams' quarterback Sam Bradford found when he met children near Arsenal's training ground. "It was surprising just how little they knew about our game," he said. "Some of the kids, it was the first time they'd ever seen an American football. If we want to grow our game we're going to have to do things like this."

Kirkwood does not demur. The NFL's long-term goal, he says, is to make American football a top-three sport in the UK. But he knows it will not happen overnight. "The sports pie is massive in this country," he says. "We kick off at a different time to the other major sports, which means you can be a Chelsea and a Patriots fan, say, rather than replacing one with the other.

"The good news for us is that the age range of NFL fans has got substantially younger -- the average age is now 27 to 28," he adds. "It's also more geographically spread. Two years ago we even had a bus load of people from the Shetlands who came all the way to London."

NFL executives have been dropping teasing hints about an NFL London franchise but Kirkwood is chilly on the prospects, at least in the short term. "You don't want to do things for the sake of doing things," he insists. "Our fan base would probably need to triple in size for it to be sustainable.

"On the flip side, look how far we've come in six years. It's fair to say there was quite a lot of concern about the first Wembley game from various stakeholders. Fans didn't know what to expect. Coaches, who are creatures of habit, were uncertain. And more than half of players didn't have passports because they had never travelled abroad. Now players tell us it's the closest thing to the Super Bowl."

Certainly Tom Brady, who faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley in 2009, is a believer. "It was a great experience last time," he said last week. "The fans were loud, they were screaming the whole game."

Meanwhile, British supporters who have followed the NFL from back in the day cannot believe their luck. "I got into American football after seeing the Seattle Seahawks in 1980," Andy Richmond, a presenter on Racing UK who also runs the website NFLinsight.com, says.

"But back in the UK there was no Teletext, no internet, no TV coverage and even getting the scores was difficult. Now through TV and the NFL's Game Pass I can watch every game live."

True, the audience figures are not yet up there with the 1980s, and the Premier League continues to cast a long shadow. But as far as NFL UK is concerned, more people are coming into the light, and that's a healthy place to be.

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