After four more sold-out NFL London Games, Raj Mannick, Head of Yahoo Sport UK, asks if the time is now right for a UK-based NFL franchise.
Four sold out NFL games in the UK this year, millions of passionate fans, a growing university sports league, and a brand-new stadium specifically designed to accommodate American Football. These are just a handful of the factors which give weight to the argument that the UK should have its own NFL franchise, but in truth the number grows year on year.
The NFL London series has come a long way since the first game between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins in 2007. This year, eight teams were involved in a regular season fixture this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The games were played in two different London-based stadiums and also stretched over a five-week period, accounting for a week’s break in the middle of the series. When you consider the level of planning needed to transport, feed and accommodate eight teams of 53 professional athletes, front room coaching staff, other backroom staff (such as athletic trainers and physiotherapists) – and of course the cheerleading squad, you realise how colossal the operation is to deliver. It is an operation many probably thought was not possible back in 2007, but this year it was successfully accomplished, much to the benefit of a delighted UK fanbase and wider economy.
As of Sunday, every team other than the Green Bay Packers will have played at least one fixture in the UK. This is crucial, as it demonstrates the NFL’s commitment to ensuring every UK-based fan can see their team perform live in person. London has in turn repaid this commitment from the NFL by investing in a purpose-built stadium which caters for American Football. The expense towards creating an artificial pitch at the new 62,000 capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which sits roughly two metres below the football pitch used by Tottenham Hotspur FC, will likely act as a key factor in highlighting the UK’s credentials to establish an NFL franchise given the infrastructure now exists.
The growing passion for the NFL in the UK was a key reason for Yahoo Sport UK launching a series focused around American sports. I’ve seen first-hand on the filming set of Yahoo Sport Presents… Tailgate just how passionate UK fans who follow American sports really are. Our host, Vick Hope, interviewed several sets of fans whose favourite teams were not in London to play, but you could really understand and empathise with how much they believe in the sport’s potential to grow within the UK. American sports are fast becoming some of the UK’s most consumed sports. According to internal research from the NFL, there are more than 15 million fans in the UK, including four million ‘avid’ fans. UK TV ratings have also doubled in the past decade, which has enabled shows like Tailgate to invest in highlight shows for its viewers. Speaking of passion and fanbase demand, whilst attending a recent NFL London Series match, I encountered several sets of American fans who had made the 4,000-mile trip to watch their team perform. This reiterates that there is demand both in the UK and USA for fans to travel in order to watch their favourite team perform.
The game of American Football has also rapidly grown in recent years at university level. The establishment, and expansion of, the two-tiered British Universities American Football League has grown in the last decade. The number of teams now stands at 75 (made up of 4,100 players), growing from 42 teams in 2007. Given the rising interest in the sport you can understand where the players’ interest is coming from. The NFL now has six UK born active players, including Jay Ajayi, who regularly terrified defences across the league during the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning season in 2017. The goal for these players is ultimately the NFL, and for years the only route to the NFL has been through the college draft system. However, as former professional rugby star Christian Wade found this summer, there can be an alternative route which cuts out the draft system which provides hope to aspiring UK athletes. Furthermore, the establishment of a UK-based franchise could lead NFL scouts to consider the talent available in the UK university league. This association with a professional sports league would inevitably lead to an improvement in UK university system facilities, and possibly even scholarships as the league would hope to develop the future generation of athletes.
It’s worth noting that there are potential roadblocks in the way of a UK based franchise. One of these is the suggestion that the ‘stop-start’ nature of the sport, which incorporates time for advertising breaks on USA TV channels, does not align with UK sporting culture. To this I would argue that cricket, one of the foundational sports in the UK, is also not based on continuous play in the way that rugby is. Football has also seen a shift through the introduction of VAR which means fans are getting more accustomed to stoppages and seeing the ball only in play for 60% of the game. In addition, the number of people watching NFL matches live on TV has been rising year on year – with nearly 1.3 million people in the UK staying awake to watch the Super Bowl. This shows that consumers do not seem too deterred by the sports principles and rules.
Despite any perceived obstacles, I do believe the arguments for establishing a UK franchise are clear. We’ve seen in the past that national sporting leagues are happy to act, as long as there is money to be made. Examples of this include the expansion of tournaments, such as the UEFA European Championships, as well as the new creation of the UEFA Nations League, both as a means of including more countries and fans, but also making more money through TV rights, shirt sales etc. There is also massive potential for UK businesses to benefit from expanding TV rights, as well as negotiating national (and local) sponsorship deals with the UK based franchise in the future.
The UK has a unique opportunity to seize the initiative and monetise a domestic interest in the NFL before another country can do so. Waiting in the wings for a new franchise are rumoured to be both Mexico and Canada and both have a competitive advantage being geographically closer to the USA. Furthermore, Canada has demonstrated with the recent success of the Toronto Raptors in the NBA, that they can establish a profitable franchise. The UK may need to act quickly if it is to set up a franchise that can unite a London, or even a UK fanbase in a way that domestic club sports have been unable to do so.