American football popularity grows in UK FEATURE

With another full-house at Wembley for the fifth NFL International Series game it's clear the popularity of American football continues to grow in the UK. Paul Arnold, a self-confessed American football fanatic visits Wembley for some NFL action.

American football popularity grows in UK

By Paul Arnold

As a self-confessed American football fanatic of some 29 years I was really looking forward to the spectacle of an NFL regular season game at our very own Wembley Stadium, when the Chicago Bears took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago in the fifth annual NFL International Series game.

As a massive fan of the sport I'd been to many games American football games at both the old and new Wembley Stadiums, from the original NFL forays to these shores in the 1980's with a series of pre-season games, to the World league, which gave us European franchises (London, Barcelona and Amsterdam) for the first time, onto NFL Europe and finally to where we are now, with an annual regular season NFL game at Wembley.

As ever, Wembley looked magnificent on our approach (I'd taken my wife and son with me), particularly given the unseasonably warm, autumnal sunshine that made London feel more like Washington in October (my team are the Redskins of that city). The crowd was excited and expectant, full of the various colour combinations that make up the uniforms (not kits) of the 32 NFL franchises. Although I think I saw nearly every team represented in amongst the thousands progressing up Wembley Way there was an abundance of Bear shirts and even more Buccaneer shirts in evidence unsurprisingly, given this game was a Tampa Bay home' fixture.

Inside the stadium the fans were treated to the sight of the kickers warming up in the dwindling sunshine and the reassurance that a dry summer and autumn indicated that the oft-criticised Wembley turf looked solid and unlikely to cut up, as it has done previously, despite the trampling of herds of 20 stone plus behemoths who ply their trade in the NFL.

As kick off approached, the largely British audience (I did hear a lot of different accents in the crowds however) were treated to the razzmatazz associated with all American sports and American football in particular. Tampa Bay unveiled their cheerleaders, a group of beautiful, toned and cheekily clad women who, for the uninitiated, patrol the sidelines, dancing and entertaining the fans whilst inciting them to cheer wildly for their team when appropriate.

It won't surprise you to hear that the arrival of the cheerleaders attracted the biggest cheer of the day, much louder than that offered for the arrival of Captain Fear and Staley da Bear, the respective team's mascots, or that given to the Goo Goo Dolls, the American rock band who performed their as the pre-game entertainment.

Wembley was then treated to the performance of the American and British national anthems before the game started a neat insight into the patriotic psyche of America that sees its anthem played before any sporting contest. It may not appeal to many British observers but, to me, it's quite moving to see so many people so obviously proud of their country and what it stands for.

To the accompaniment of fireworks the two teams were then announced with the Tampa Bay offensive starters entering the pitch area through a 10 feet high skeletal pirate face you don't see that at Wembley every week.

The game itself did not disappoint either. Although the Bears, one of the NFL's oldest and most successful franchises, dominated early on, the Buccaneers came back at them and made a real game of it. Most of the 76,000 fans in the stadium obviously had an advanced understanding of the game as their reactions clearly showed, cheering, booing and shooting de-fense at precisely the right time. There were still some first timers in the stands though, but they must still have enjoyed the marvellous spectacle that only an American football game can provide.

If you don't watch the game or understand the rules, American football is a unique, absorbing blend of extreme violence, top level athleticism and strategy, much like chess in that the team coaches (there are lots of them) plot and scheme, usually several plays ahead with players following complex game plans that have taken days to devise.

American football has been criticised as the players wear pads; some call it soft. However, unlike Rugby, its closest counterpart, the players in the NFL are generally bigger (up to 25-26 stones) and faster (several Olympians have graced NFL teams). The resulting spectacular collisions are a result of those factors and the wearing of the pads. If the pads were done away with, the hits, which have come to typify the sport, would be absent.

In the end Chicago came out on top, 24-18, setting themselves up for another run at the playoffs and hopefully the Superbowl, although last years champions, the Green Bay Packers are in their division and are so far undefeated. The Buccaneers, in an equally competitive division, were left facing their annual struggle to keep up with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, two of the NFL's elite teams.

All of the above was as I expected. As an old hand who's watched several games in the US I knew what I was going to see and wasn't disappointed. What got me excited however was first, the confirmation by the NFL that the International Series would definitely go ahead for the next five years with the possibility of two games in the UK, starting next year. Secondly, and far more ground breaking were media reports that the NFL is seriously considering the possibility of an NFL franchise in London.

There are a number of reasons why this, on the face of it, contrary proposal, could come to fruition. Even though the world's economic state is parlous the NFL continues to believe that its growth can only be satisfied by international development and a surge in its popularity abroad. Also, with recent expansion to 32 teams, several NFL franchises are struggling to sell out their stadiums week-in, week-out. This is not only bad news because the franchises themselves lose ticket, merchandise and hospitality revenue, but any team that fails to sell-out a game in the US is then the subject of a resultant TV black-out in their local area (75 mile radius).

If a team suffers several black-outs, and that still doesn't cause the fans to turn up at the stadium then there are obviously problems for that franchise's viability in the long-term. The teams counter with various tactics but as American Football relies so heavily on TV revenue they have to service the needs of the huge TV networks, who rely entirely on advertising revenue, and blackouts are not good for business, hence the NFL's real and genuine interest in expanding to foreign markets.

As 49ers owner John York, chairman of the league's International Committee said of the idea of a London franchise It's ambitious and we can't talk about timescales yet but I think it will happen.

Of course it is highly unlikely that the NFL will seek to expand from its current 32 team format any time soon. However, as has been shown with the Buffalo Bills arrangement to play five regular season and three pre-season games in Toronto between 2008 and 2013, there is scope to consider a city share for a franchise, or even the re-location of a franchise to a new, more lucrative city.

Let's remember that the Indianapolis Colts used to reside in Baltimore, the St. Louis Rams used to live in Los Angeles, the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL's oldest franchise, are originally from St. Louis and the iconic Oakland Raiders, spent a few years in LA, before returning to their original home. The NFL and owners are not afraid to take drastic action and move a failing franchise. Due to the principle of collective revenue, all 32 owners suffer together and prosper together.

With Los Angeles due a franchise, the Rams and Raiders now playing elsewhere, London is a little way behind in consideration but the possibility is real. The hot rumour is that Tampa Bay, who have been blacked-out this year and who do struggle to sell out their full complement of eight home games, would not be averse to playing more games in London. Of course, their ownership, the Glazer family, have a history of sports ownership on these shores, owning Manchester United as they do, and are comfortable here.

I can certainly foresee a future in which the Buccaneers split their home fixtures 4-4 or 5-3 between Tampa Bay and London. With fewer games in Florida the fans would be more likely to attend those remaining there and London would attract a host of new European and UK fans, keen to have their own' team to support. If the fans continue to come out in their droves and the will is there within the NFL it will happen, it's just a matter of when.

In anticipation of the day when the Tampa Bay London Buccaneers or even better, the London Monarchs call the UK home why not, when holidaying in the US, attend an NFL game and see for yourself what the game is all about.

America is a massively popular holiday destination for Brits and an American Football game is just one way of enjoying popular American culture the tail gaiting, the cheerleaders, the half time entertainment and above all the best sport in the world, full of passion, excitement, wonderful athletes and fierce physicality.

BritEvents sells tickets for all NFL games across the US, from Florida, to New York to California and prices are surprisingly low for many of those match-ups.

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