Forgive the cliche, but American Football is more than just a sport in the U.S. It is so ingrained in the culture that holidays such as Thanksgiving are almost defined by football. A 2014 study suggested that 48% of Americans listed some form of football as their favorite sport. Overseas, though, it is a different story.
Predictably, football is big in Canada, as well as Brazil and Mexico. Saudi Arabia is ninth when it comes to most fans outside the US, however, having an estimated 3.12 million supporters of the NFL, Germany and the U.K lead the way in Europe for football fans. But there is an alarming disparity between interest in the NFL in the U.S and overseas. The future of the sport has even been brought into question recently, with viewing figures suggesting its demise. One suggested that the answer to secure the longevity of football is to appeal more to the global audience.
Recent NFL integration into the U.K.
This introduction of football to the U.K, London to be precise, was a starting step. Outsourcing certain matches to other host countries is nothing new. In recent times, Canada, Mexico, and Japan have all staged regular football games.
From 1982, Channel 4 in the U.K began showing highlights of the NFL which sparked initial interest in the game. It was then when demand for football first started to grow. When the New York Giants played the Miami Dolphins at Wembley in 2007, it was the first game the country had seen since August 1993. Since then, at least one NFL game has been held at Wembley, and a total of four games were played in 2017 – Twickenham hosted two of those matches.
Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium will also begin to host NFL matches regularly (two a year planned initially), bringing more games to the U.K audience. Mark Waller has even talked heavily about an NFL franchise coming to London. So plans are being made to take the game across seas and thoroughly implement it into the U.K. And similar action may be taken in future to roll out the NFL brand out across the globe. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s just go back a step and discuss whether the Wembley games have been a success?
Have the Wembley matches been a success?
Is it even worth introducing NFL games to other world cities? Does the U.K have the demand to keep a franchise going? Looking back over how successful the recent Wembley games have been will help provide answers.
In terms of interest, the games have done well. Attendances have remained high since the 2007 game, with only the Bears vs Buccaneers game (2011) failing to attract over 80,000 spectators. That being said, attracting fans to attend occasional games that happen two or three times a year is simple, especially when those games have the likes of Tinie Tempah, Calvin Harris, and Craig David as the pre-game entertainment. Were a franchise to be introduced, you’d need those fans to turn up week in, week out. But the purpose was to simply generate interest and advertise the brand, and the Wembley matches have done that so far.
If NFL it wants continued growth and long-term success in the future, it needs to get the younger generation interested in the sport and encouraging players to play it. If the younger generation is not engaged with the sport, it will eventually lead to its demise.
In the early nineties, it is reported that games were getting viewing figures as low as 6000 when broadcast on Sky in the U.K. Peak viewership for the 2017 games reached nearly half a million. In terms of participation, however, figures aren’t very encouraging and suggest that the game is in decline in the U.K.
Pre-NFL International Series in 2006, 45,500 people participated in playing football regularly. As of 2016, that figure decreased to just 28,600. Why might this be? It must be considered that participation in football in the U.S decreased over the same period from 8.4 to 5.48 million. So perhaps, the game is simply dying out already, and the fact that people are still even playing the sport in the U.K now is down to the Wembley games.
One major downside, however, to the Wembley matches is that it potentially sets one side at a huge disadvantage. Take the L.A Rams for an example. They have looked like a different team under Sean McVay. They’ve started the season well and are favorites to make it three wins from three this week when they play Chargers. But were one of the upcoming Wembley games to be Rams against an East Coast opponent, it would surely put them at a disadvantage and could potentially hinder their promising start. They would have an 11-hour flight as opposed to just a 6-hour flight from the East Coast and would have to adapt to a greater time difference than their opponents. Even if they were to play another West Coast team, the long-distance flight would be a huge inconvenience to them and put them at a disadvantage to other teams in the league that hasn’t had to travel to London.
Although the interest has been there for the games held at Wembley (and Twickenham) so far, this may simply be because they are novelties. They only happen a handful of times a year, so even those people who are not big fans of football may choose to go simply for a new experience that they would not usually get.
The popularity of soccer in the U.K is another huge factor in why initiating a football and NFL into the U.K mainstream will be near-impossible. With the BBC now showing a small number of NFL games for free though, that is a start to helping it breakout.
With more viewers than any other European country, it makes sense for the U.K to be the destination of choice for the International Series. The Wembley games have certainly been a success so far in that they have given fans a first-hand experience of the NFL. Have they been successful enough to establish a significant viewership that will embrace a franchise? Not quite. But maybe this will come in time.