At 24, I wasn’t around to watch the NFL on TV in the ‘80s and didn’t watch my first game until 2012. It was the divisional round playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. I was captivated as the lead changed hands multiple times in the final quarter and ever since then I’ve been hooked. Staying up until 5am is a regular occurrence, I make the trips to Wembley/Twickenham every year, I play Madden until my fingers hurt, fantasy football has become life and I even played running back for the Shropshire Revolution and the Crewe Railroaders in the British league. It’s safe to say, I’m addicted to American Football.
This is not uncommon anymore in the UK. There are millions of avid fans, just like me, and that number is growing daily. We’ve all got that friend who says that ‘it’s too stop-start’ or ‘I don’t understand it’ and I’m the first to admit that there are too many commercial breaks and it is a tricky sport to grasp. But, what can the NFL do to reach their target of 6 million fans by 2020? Current fans feel hard done to by the NFL, so attracting new fans will become increasingly difficult.
The NFL is a business. The aim of a business is to make money and the NFL is committed to growing the game in the UK to help drive revenue. The first problem that the NFL faces is the drastic difference in culture. In America, children are brought up watching football, playing football and supporting football. The entirety of Sunday is dedicated to football- it’s a way of life. Here, in the UK, fans often find football later in life, are alone in following it or find it inconveniencing to watch. Instead, football (soccer) dominates our upbringings, media and our lives and football is still seen as the hipster sport. The NFL is trying to combat this by introducing the Play60 scheme in UK schools to encourage kids in schools to participate in sport for 60 minutes a day.
The second problem the NFL faces is the 3000-mile expanse of water known as the Atlantic Ocean. The East coast of America is 5 hours behind us and the West coast is 8 hours behind us. This can make for some very interesting game times. 3 games a week don’t start until 1:30 am and can go on as late as 5am which is a nightmare when your alarm for work goes off at 7am. In week 1, the NFL has a Monday night special with the Broncos and the Chargers not kicking off until 3:20am! That game will still be being played when I get up for work! On the other side of the pond, when an International Series game kicks off at 2:30pm, the kick-off time on the West coast of America is 6:30am. I wouldn’t fancy waking at 6:30am on a Sunday morning for the NFL equivalent of West Brom vs Burnley. The NFL can’t do anything about the time zones, but it could adjust times slightly to accommodate all fans. If the night games were to kick-off at midnight, as they have been doing during the preseason, we’d get another hour and a half kip.
A franchise based in the UK, would be the ultimate attraction of new fans to the NFL. There have been rumour and whispers about the Jaguars being relocated here for years but how seriously can we take these? The Jaguars are committed to playing a ‘home’ game at Wembley until at least 2020 and certainly seem to be attracting a large UK based following. The league may also consider an expansion and possibly bring in 4 or more brand new teams. But, what are the implications of a UK based franchise? With 4 games now being played in London per year, teams are used to travelling to the UK and don’t necessarily have their bye the week after anymore. Questions have been asked about where the ‘home’ team would be based. It’s practical for neither a UK or US base as the team would have to split its time evenly between the two. Not having a permanent base will have consequences on the team and will probably be a disadvantage to them.
A UK based franchise is not the answer in my opinion. If the NFL is serious about growing the game in the UK, we need to see commitment in other ways. 4 games a year is perfect but we need better quality games and the NFL should maybe consider letting Wembley host a SuperBowl. The NFL must also consider the UK more when broadcasting games. Can a Sunday night football game be brought forward to midnight? Can commercial breaks be reduced to shorten games and bring forward bed times? The NFL must also consider a cheaper/easier way for us to watch content as well. Neil Reynolds and the team at NFLUK are doing a great job to help grow the game over here, but it’s time the NFL stepped up and truly showed us their commitment to us UK fans.
By David Davenport