UK Embracing American Football, NFL Making Huge Strides

UK sees enormous rise in participation since 2007, when the NFL began playing regular season games in London

Imagine the day in the near future when a young teenager in central London is arguing with his father over the television. Dad wants to watch Arsenal and Chelsea. His son has totally other ideas. The London Olympians are playing their third game of the NFL season against the New York Giants at home. The game is sold out, so it is being televised. This is the dream of American football fans throughout the United Kingdom.

Is this a real possibility? Will an NFL franchise ever put its roots down in Great Britain? Well, according to David Tossell, head of Public Affairs for NFL Europe, this may not be as farfetched as it once seemed.

“The popularity of American football is definitely on the rise in the United Kingdom,” he said recently. “Whether that will translate into a dedicated fan base, enough to support a team, we still do not know, but there is considerable interest among the NFL owners to make it happen.”

NFL players themselves are excited about the prospect. A few of them arrived in Great Britain to promote the upcoming games.

Osi Umenyiora of the Atlanta Falcons:  “There is no question about it – London should have an NFL franchise. The logistics of the whole thing have to be workedout but the fan base is there and people are very receptive to the sport.”

One of the other NFL stars in London was Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake: “A London franchise would be a lot of fun. We’re doing whatever we can to broaden the horizons and get more visibility for our game on a larger stage than just the United States.”

According to statistics from Andy Fuller, who oversees community and university American Football in Great Britain, which means he is pretty much in charge of everything, growth of the sport has picked up considerably, particularly since 2007, when the NFL began scheduling regular season games in London once a year. In fact, the league believes so much in the concept that this year, in 2014, three games will take place. Two were played last season.

NFL Wembley

Wembley Stadium in London is the home to three NFL games in 2014

According to Fuller, interest in American Football on TV has begun translating into a rise in interest in the sport itself. “This year, 40,000 people, above the age of 16, are playing American football in the United Kingdom,” said Fuller. “That is an enormous rise in participation since 2007, when the NFL began playing regular season games here. ”

In fact, as recently as 2011, a total of only 19,500 players above the age of 16 were involved in American football in Great Britain so the recent increase has been steep. By contrast, a total of 35,000 people play football in Germany, the European country with the greatest traditional participation numbers.

“The popularity of American football is definitely on the rise in the United Kingdom..”

Naturally, a jump in participation involves much more than simply getting players on the field. The logistics are complex. To start, equipment must be purchased. Fields allocated. Officials recruited. For each club a well-run organization with the wherewithal to run an American football organization is needed. This means recruiting good people. And, most important of all, you need coaches. And even more coaches.

“Coaching clinics are a key component,” Andy said. “We need better, and more coaches so that we put ourselves  in a position to take advantage of the interest.” Another sector which has made substantial strides is the growth of American football at the university level in the United Kingdom. Currently, 84 schools have included American football in their sports programs. Again, the advent of NFL games played in Great Britain along with the expansion of TV coverage have attributed to this increase according to Fuller.

Kofi Campbell and the Jets Couldn't Make Any Yards on the Ground. Courtesy of Graham Beardsley Photography

BAFA’s London Blitz take down a running back from the Coventry Jets

“The television coverage has helped in a number of ways but that which is very important is that people are no longer afraid to get involved. Sky Sports5 channel features NFL highlights from NFL Network on a regular basis now. Because of this exposure, people have learned much more about the sport. This has been a barrier before. Fans were intimidated by their lack of knowledge of football. Television is helping speed up the educational process.”

David Tossell echoes this opinion. “We are seeing much more fan interest and that is being transformed into participants.” He continued saying “The last Super Bowl in February was watched by four million viewers in the UK. In fact, television coverage has doubled since 2007.”

The NFL does keep a close watch on TV figures as it gives them a fairly accurate estimate of the number of fans overall there are in Great Britain. According to Tossell, that number has reached 13 million people who are interested in American football and the NFL.

“We actually began increasing television coverage in 2002 when we renegotiated our contract with Sky Sports. We wanted to re-invigorate the sport.”, said Tossell. “It had been sliding during the World League of American Football which transformed into NFL Europe and NFL Europa, which folded in 2007.”

NFL London Fans

NFL fans come from everywhere!

The NFL has no plans to involve itself in day-to-day field level type operations, confining itself to growing the popularity of the sport through a variety of measures, but still relying primarily on television coverage, not just of games but also weekly highlights.

Tony Allen, head coach of the London Warriors, who played in London and coached right up through NFL Europe, has seen a difference in recent years. “There is no question that interest in football has really picked up,” he said. “With the NFL games being played here and all the TV attention, we are seeing more and more people get involved. We just have to keep up with this by offering better coaching, facilities and understanding.”

So far, the greatest beneficiaries of this growing popularity would have to be the players themselves. More and more clubs are popping up as the demand to play the sport increases. Niall Scott-Grant, a defensive end from London, playing for arguably the best team in the UK, the London Warriors, took up the sport when he was 14. That was the year the first regular season game was played in London. “I went to that game,” he said. “I had seen NFL football on television and I loved it right away. A couple of my friends were playing so I tagged along”.

He has attended every NFL game in London ever since. Recognized as one of the best defensive players in Great Britain, his goal is to play college football in the United States. At 6’4″ and 235 lbs, he could well have a chance.

NFL UK 4

Future is bright for sport in UK.

James Plant of the Birmingham Bulls is of the same opinion: “Yes, the NFL had a lot of influence on me.  I started with Madden, then began watching the NFL, which then moved me into looking for a local team,” he said. “I’ve been playing for seven years and I love it.” 

He also can see the impact of the NFL on the sport in the UK. “There is no question it is a great advertisement for the sport in this country and you can tell in the amount of players that have started coming down to our club.”

It seems that the NFL understands the importance of vision and taking a long-term approach. They have experimented over the years but now seem to have found the right path. Throughout history, the United Kingdom has always been the gateway to the continent and beyond. Why not for American football as well?

NFL players quotes are excerpts via BritViewNFL.com 

Roger Kelly
Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.
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