Support through Sport UK's Rich Dean considers the NFL and its relevance, and future, in the UK ...
The NFL has been in town to play two games at Wembley Stadium and I was able to attend both games (as well as having the opportunity to talk to some of the players, coaches and staff).
The two games played were:
- Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings
- San Francisco 49ers v Jacksonville Jaguars
As part of the NFL's international expansion plan, London has become the focus. The NFL sees the UK market as one that continues to grow and, as a result of their efforts to market the game here, the popularity of the NFL is now at an unprecedented level in the UK. The question now is ... how much further can the game grow here?
We now know that, since 2007, nine games have successfully taken place at Wembley, and all but one have sold-out (the one that wasn't a sell-out wasn't a sell-out for specific reasons). We also know that the NFL has a well-established office in Central London, which does fantastic work bringing the spectacle and pageantry of the NFL to its English fans - as evidenced by the huge events that are held either side of the games (fan rallies, block parties and NFL promotional tours). It all represents a drive to surge the game forwards in this country. It's purported that this level of activity is due to the NFL 'testing the water' regarding the future viability of placing a franchise within the UK. I spoke to Mindi Bach about this very thing. Mindi is a prominent San Francisco-based broadcast journalist, working for the NBC TV division- ComCastSportsNet. Mindi's view is that: 'The NFL certainly seems to be making a concerted effort to see how far things can go. They want to grow their brand, and while soccer is king here, I think they see the way UK people gravitate towards sport, and they want some of that pie.'
As Mindi says, the will is there on the part of the NFL, but will there be a more long-term, stable demand for the sport from the sport's English fans? 'I think at the moment the games are seen as one-off events, the question is do you have enough local fans to be able to cement a team into the UK sporting culture?'
This is a question which I'm sure can be partly answered through observing how successful the three games planned for 2014 are. Up until this point, the success has been resounding, and provides an excellent platform for future events to thrive.
The players I spoke to were very positive about coming over to London to play the game. Tarell Brown, of the 49ers, said: 'It's a blessing for us to be here. We are enjoying it, and soaking it all in.' His team-mates - and the players from all of the three teams that I spoke to - echoed this sentiment. Tarell also said that he thinks there will be an NFL franchise over here in time, but that there are certain issues, such as travelling, that will need to be overcome before that happens. He said: 'They (the NFL) will find a way.' Team-mate Donte Whitner added: 'I would definitely be signing up for that team. I love the way people speak, I learnt a few new words <laughs>'. I won't tell you the specific words I taught him ...
In my view, one thing that needs to happen is that we need to filter the game into UK schools in modified form. I think that there is a need for a drive in participation amongst young children - so they can learn about aspects of the game by experiencing them.
Even though it has grown exponentially here over the past few years, American Football is still 'niche'. One thing that is accepted is that it will never usurp soccer (forgive the Americanism!), rugby, cricket and tennis as our core sports. All of these sports have rich histories and are inextricably weaved into the English culture.
So could NFL sustain itself in the UK as a supplementary sport? Well, selling out repeatedly at Wembley is not to be sniffed at - but I still think that the games are seen as something of a novelty. It will be interesting to see if this novelty factor will pervade. Only time will tell. Where will the saturation point of interest lie?
One thing is absolutely unequivocal and that is that the the events are real spectacles. They really are true sporting 'occasions' - as opposed to just games. Mindi Bach again commented: 'The way the Wembley game was staged was incredible, and would have been expensive to put on in the way that it was. It was more than a regular season-game; you only see that level of entertainment for a play-off game or a nationally televised Monday Night Football game.' I personally found that, even when the game was not hugely competitive or close (such as the Jacksonville v SF 49er's game), you still come away feeling wowed by the spectacle and the 'show' element.
I would recommend that anyone who has not yet been to a live NFL game go along and see one (you have three chances next year!). It will probably be a very different experience to any other sporting event that you have attended. Ideally, you want to see a great, competitive game (as the Minnesota v Pittsburgh match proved to be) but, to reiterate, the game can sometimes seem almost incidental to the entertainment. Perhaps when we start to say that the game is more the 'product' - rather than the 'event' - that will be the time when the NFL will really crack it over here?