The new NFL season returns this weekend to relatively little fanfare in the UK, but that doesn’t mean there’s no interest.
The growth of American football on these shores has seen regular season NFL games arrive at Wembley and Twickenham, while the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, a ground designed with the sport very much in mind, will host two games this season.
Much of this can be attributed to the foundations that NFL UK has put in place over the last decade, but they haven't been restricted to simple bricks and mortar, though. The London Games have become a regular yearly festival of American football, and a mainstream UK audience is unlikely to have ever been so aware of the game. Beyond the accessibility of live games on Sky Sports every week, the popular BBC highlights show presented by Mark Chapman and featuring ex-pros Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora has also brought a familiar feel to the coverage for a British audience.
This week, ESPN UK has announced the launch of the Nat Coombs Show, which will feature four new podcasts each week focusing on all areas of American football, from reviews and previews to college football and fantasy teams.
“There are new people coming up to us every year and saying they want to cover the NFL,” Jamie King, Senior Social Media and Digital Content Strategist at NFL UK and Sport Industry NextGen Alumni, told Sport Industry Group. “It’s been overwhelming compared to usual, which is great - two years ago we were really chasing people down and saying you should cover this sport.”
Ahead of the new season, NFL UK is attempting to build similar foundations in a different way. The NFL academy - a new initiative for 16 to 18-year-olds - has been launched with the aim of developing future American football stars a stone’s throw away from the sport’s new London home in Tottenham. Alongside the Enfield-based Barnet and Southgate College, the league will work to develop young talent in multiple college settings, something which has been in the works for the last 18 months.
“What we’re doing is creating a pathway for young British and European players to go to Division One schools in the States. Barnet and Southgate College are essentially launching an American football programme and we come in to overlay the NFL on top of that,” King said.
80 pupils have come on board in the first year’s intake, but the aim isn’t solely to train athletes in the hope they’ll make the big time in America. All of the pupils are taking A-Levels or BTech qualifications alongside the sporting side of their course; the chance to play American football is simply built into a normal study schedule.
There’s another element to the initiative, too.
“It’s a fan-growth strategy as much as it is a football development strategy,” says King. “One of our big focuses at the moment is how do we create content from this programme to make it relevant to that audience and use it as a fan growth tool on the marketing side. We’re looking - as everyone else is - at the Gen Z audience and how can we attract 15 to 16 year olds. Most importantly, how can we become relevant in their world?”
Within the sporting world, the NFL is a property that lends itself conveniently to the on-demand, entertainment types of content that the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are developing. Other sports, meanwhile, are imitating what’s worked in American football. Documentary series like Last Chance U and All or Nothing have been aped by others. The sub-genre of sports documentaries has exploded in the last three years.
“As you can probably imagine we’ve been approached by tonnes of production companies and TV networks about creating that kind of series. Right now, we have no plans to do that, because from our point of view, we really want to work out how this programme is going to run.
“It’s never been done before, so at least for the first year we really want to try and focus on creating content that’s going to live on NFL Academy and NFL channels. Short form, vertical video; trying to turn the athletes into content creators in their own right, which is another really interesting strand of this.”
The pipe dream of seeing an NFL player come through the humble north London academy does seem a long way off at present, but the foundations that have been laid down in the UK over the last decade hint that there’s a chance at growth.
An epic touchdown in his first pre-season game showed Christian Wade was able to create interest at scale in the UK. The former Wasps Rugby player has entered American football through the International Player Pathway Programme and created the perfect storm over the summer, going viral scoring after a 65-yard carry. Wade’s name-recognition, the fact he’s a British player and the sheer sporting thrill of the achievement caught the imagination in the UK.
“He was pretty well known in the rugby world and there was interest around him [joining an NFL team], but when we all woke up that Friday morning after that pre-season game we did not expect to see what we saw!
“That again underlines the importance of a local player and relevance. If that was an American it wouldn’t even have been a story, but because he’s English and he played rugby, people know who he is, and he’s got a British accent, he walks and talks like a British person and I think that makes a huge difference.
“It underlines one of the things we knew already, that British players and relevancy is one of the huge barriers to entry when it comes to being a fan of the sport. If we can find ways to climb those barriers with things like Christian we’re on the right track.”
While Wade's future still remains unclear, two seasons ago the London-born Jay Ajayi won the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, and with the way NFL UK is focussing it's resources, we may yet see a London-developed player doing the same thing very soon.