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Friday, February 28, 2014

The growth of American football in the UK

Much like football in the UK (I refuse to call it soccer), American football is at the very heart of national culture. Almost every week, the highest rated US television shows are the week’s two televised NFL games, with viewing figures often peaking close to 20 million.

Conversations leading up to the game are dominated by conjecture, speculation and preamble in the press, and the city bars and betting shops are abuzz with the assertions of armchair observers. But can this American interloper ever barge its way into the fanatical affections of the UK sports supporter, or it is destined for life on the fringe?

Dipping our toes in...

In 2007, the NFL introduced the International Series games held in Wembley Stadium. Since the inaugural game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants, there have been seven further games, with three more proposed for the 2014 season.

Of the eight games held to date, only one has failed to draw a crowd of less than 80,000, and it seems the American fanfare is gathering steam. Until 2012, only one International Series game was held each year; there were two games for the first time in 2013 and, as mentioned above, there are three arranged for 2014.

American Football’s roots in British culture are seeded firmly in London. Much of this success has been driven by the increase in American football participation in many of the capital’s universities. Since 2012, American Football has been an official British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) with a number of competitive leagues across the city including teams from Brunel University, King’s College and Imperial College London.

Talk of a London franchise

Growing interest in the sport has fuelled speculation of a possible London franchise, particularly since Shahid Kahn, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, became the chairman of the Premier League’s very own Fulham. However, any speculation has been dismissed by Khan himself as “very premature”.

The future?

The potential risks of establishing a London franchise before the market is ready are clear following the failure of the NFL backed World League of American Football, which saw the inaugural World Bowl contested by the London Monarchs and Barcelona Dragons in 1991.

In 1995, NFL Europe replaced the ill-fated World League, which experienced some success before the NFL pulled the plug in 2004. At this time the league was made up of only six surviving franchises, five from Germany and one from Amsterdam.

One of the main stumbling blocks for American football to overcome is that, unlike the Premier League, the game can not rely on vast foreign audiences or a large population of participants to keep the game thriving. Despite growth at grass root level, it is developing from a very low base, and while initial signs in London look positive, there is still little interest in the rest of the UK, or in fact, the rest of the world.

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