The Rise of the NFL in the UK

Sam Slater looks at the history of NFL in the UK, as the sport has risen from being the butt of cheap jokes to a thriving subculture with a passionate cult fanbase, potentially paving the way for the creation of a major London franchise.

Sam Slater
22nd October 2019
Wikipedia Commons: The NFL international Series has sold out Wembley several times since it's advent in2007
It was not all that long ago that American Football existed in a shroud of negative perception and cheap jokes in this country. The idea that this American upstart could be a popular sport in Britain when the quintessentially British born-and-raised game of rugby was far superior, and for braver participants, meant that the sport struggled to make an in road into British popular culture, but is this changing?

American Football first reached this green and pleasant land during the Second World War. The placement of thousands of American and Canadian servicemen in Britain led to a small culture shock, where thousands nationwide found themselves encountering a curious group of people who had no passion for tea and played a deranged form of rugby league, except with more stopping and shoulder pads. Despite this, the ‘Tea Bowl’ and the ‘Coffee Bowl’ between US and Canadian troops brought in crowds of thousands. American Football had arrived in Britain.

A period of ambivalence ensued. Attempts by the USA to further infiltrate post-war culture by establishing leagues in Europe failed spectacularly. It wasn’t until 1982 with the emergence of the modern sports broadcast that created the second wave of British interest. Channel 4 began to show one game a week generating a surprising amount of interest, with 4 million people tuning into Superbowl XX in 1986 to see the Bears mutilate the Patriots. However, a further attempt to introduce European leagues failed further, limping on until the mid-2000s but with limited exposure and enthusiasm.

The last 15 years has resulted in a renaissance within Britain, due to the much-increased access to American sports in general through the use of the internet. The rise in the use of American sports franchises as fashion statements, reaching beyond the traditional New York Yankees logo that has adorned many a baseball cap for years, has also reached a new pinnacle in this period. Teams that may not have seen traditionally as ‘cool’ or ‘iconic’ are now marketed across the world, from the Cincinnati Bengals to the Seattle Seahawks. This, as well as the game’s physical presence increasing year on year thanks to the NFL International Series, has led to a solidifying of American Football’s status within British subculture.

The International Series is perhaps the most important factor in the meteoric rise of the sport to the level where it is played in most universities and even beginning to be played in some schools. Since 2007, at least one regular season game has been hosted by London, with four sell-out fixtures taking place in 2019 alone. The popularity of this International Series perhaps sums up the British attitude: we may like a foreign sport but not enough to establish a British league. Therefore, buying into the existing system that already contains the best and brightest of the sport’s athletes is far more agreeable. This idea took a new high in 2019, when Christian Wade of England and the London Wasps decided to ditch Rugby Union to try out as a Running Back for the Buffalo Bills, scoring several touchdowns in pre-season and making the roster for this current season.

Now a market for the sport has been proven, what next? For years the possibility of a London-based Franchise has been discussed by Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL. The flight from New York to London, is after all, not much further than NYC to LA. A target of 2025 has been set by the NFL for the establishment of a London franchise, with links already emerging. The owner of Fulham FC, Shahid Khan, also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars in Florida, a less well-established team that has often been suggested as the one that might move to London. Khan gained traction in the British press when he offered to purchase Wembley Stadium from the FA, in a move which many saw as preparation to move the Jaguars into it permanently. Furthermore, the new White Hart Lane, was designed by a firm which has designed 14 NFL stadiums, with features such as the sizes of the changing rooms able to contain a 53-man roster suggesting another potential location for the London franchise.

Now that the sport is more revered than ridiculed, it is not controversial to say that the sport has succeeded finally in establishing itself into at least a British subculture. The three-hour spectacle of each game can be a grueling chess match between an athletic and quick offense and a defence that from the distance, could be mistaken for the Himalayas, and it can still often come down to the last few minutes. Throw in the ability to drink at the games, and the athletic bonanza of huge hits and high tackles on show, it’s of no surprise that the sport is on the rise, tapping into the historic layer of human subconsciousness that demands violence between athletes. The NFL-invasion is only getting started.

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