The other day, for the first time in my life, I heard a British person say “soccer” un-ironically. Why?
Once upon a time, no confusion arose if you said “football”. Everyone knew you meant Stephen Ireland hoofing a perfectly round ball with his foot down a grassy field on the telly on a Saturday afternoon. Today, the clarification is necessary. Do you mean a 3-hour long weekly festival of brassy fanfare, leather oval-shaped balls being thrown around on a numbered field, OTT score graphics, men violently ramming into other men and constant Chevrolet pickup truck ads? This is American football.
The sport is seeing a resurgence after having vanished from popular British culture for well over 25 years. Now, not only can you watch RedZone at your local pub or buy NFL merchandise at a Nike shop, you can go watch actual regular season NFL games at a sold-out Wembley. I thought this was worth investigating, because 15 years ago that same stadium might have been empty.
I started close to home with the Regents, the College’s own American football team. The Regents play regularly against other London-based university teams. From what team president Jonathan Le Hunte and team RMR officer Isaac Woodman have experienced, the sport is getting big, fast. “You could probably catch RedZone at a pub somewhere in the middle of Wiltshire. People really do watch it nowadays”, Isaac explained, illustrating the fact that he’d gone from having very few friends who even knew of the sport to being surrounded by NFL fans at university.
The Regents used “the UK’s fastest growing sport” as a way to lure students to their stand at Freshers’ Fair and while it’s hard to measure such a statistic, the fact that there are 78 registered teams at university level across the country competing at 3 different league levels despite being the most recent sport to be incorporated under BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) is something that really makes you take a step back. We’re not talking about 11 lads turning up to play in second-hand pads on the off-chance it’s sunny either. We’re talking about a sport that got around 300 students to turn up in the September Dorset cold to the Bournemouth University American Football Rookie Days.
If that’s the amount of people who are willing to be violently pushed around on a weekly basis (myself included), then what about the masses of sofa fans? Even though we’re yet to near the 4 million Brits who tuned into Super Bowl XX in 1986 (only about 800,000 UK viewers watched Super Bowl LII last February), Sarah Swanson, head of NFL marketing in the UK, says that the sport’s popularity is reaching an all-time high.
This might be a direct result of the NFL International series returning to London in full-force in 2015. The Series consists of three regular-season NFL games being played in London. What would even bring them back to the UK in the first place if all interest had seemingly died out? Swanson said that the sport is “a lot more accessible through social media than traditional European sports”. While it’s easy to say that the newfound popularity has many reasons, Swanson narrowed it down to concentrating their marketing on social media influencers and riding the wave of viewership that Sky Sports brought to the NFL when they agreed a five-year broadcasting contract in 2014. “People had to pay £85 to watch the NFL on their in-house broadcasting service before. Now they can even watch some games on BBC One”.
Swanson is fast to point out that Hackney-born Jay Ajayi is NFL UK’s biggest selling point. “We unashamedly promote Jay over here,” she says. As current running back for the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, Ajayi is NFL UK’s rock star. “Jay has been such a big part of giving people a reason to care, to engage. It’s amazing having someone British-born […] playing in the Super Bowl”. NFL UK’s current team want to avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors in the 1980s, when the NFL frenzy died out quickly. Ultimately, their goal is to transfer the passion to the next generation, led by role models such as Ajayi.
At the end of the day, it didn’t take a lot to light a new fire for American football in the UK. The NFL, Sky Sports, the BBC, social media stars and everyone involved at a grassroots level took the initiative to keep the fire burning and to plant American football firmly as a sport for everyone. Accessibility has been the name of the game, so whether you want to sit on the tube with a potentially broken rib twice a week or sit in a pub for 3 hours to watch an overpaid 26-year old fail to throw a ball in the direction of his teammates on London’s designated home team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, rest assured that American football is a sport you can get excited about again.