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NFL UK boss hints at team in London as game's popularity grows

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Since its inception, the NFL has been known as ‘America’s game’ but there is no doubt we Brits sure have been fighting to get our slice of the action in recent years.

From the International series, to increased television coverage the NFL has grown in popularity massively over the last few years, not to mention the evolving domestic game itself. But where does it stop?

What next?

Talk of an English franchise intensifies every year and more British players are making the move to the states all the time. Could the NFL seriously invite us into their vastly American brand?

NFL UK boss, Alistair Kirkwood certainly hoped so when GiveMeSport caught up with him recently:

“For years we’ve been trying to build a body of evidence to prove that it makes sense for the league going forward”.

Although, having an NFL franchise jump ship to London requires much more than one man trying to do so. It starts right from the bottom according to Kirkwook with the basic premise that “we would have to add to the massive popularity of the league and not take away from that."

Can the UK offer more than any of the existing NFL markets?

Well from looking at the basic facts, we should be able to. We can boast an average attendance of over 80,000 to the Wembley International Series games over the last nine years.

Only one NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys can better over recent seasons - and it is a higher figure than any Heineken Cup final in recent history and fractionally higher than the majority of England’s friendlies in the new Wembley.

The question is, can we sustain those numbers over a whole season, or is our fan base merely interested in the novelty value of that once a year experience?

A recent survey suggests the latter at this stage. Only 24% suggested they would be interested in a season ticket should a team be based in London. An equally as discouraging 27% would primarily support an English franchise over a team they may already have ties to.

Perhaps these next few years will tell the tale as the league outgrows even its 1980s presence in the UK.

Kirkwood says that it’s important not to compare generation to generation but that “what we’re doing nowadays is much more meaningful as it’s so much more difficult to capture people’s

Growth of the domestic game

Similarly to the 80s, the sport is still a long way off breaking into the UK's mass markets with football, rugby and the likes still leagues ahead. In time though it’s not unrealistic to imagine a huge burst in the popularity of American Football over here with the already impressive foundations of national leagues in place.

I say foundations; the BAFANL (British American Football Association National Leagues) has been going since 1987, with some form of participation existing even before then. Our leagues have experienced roughly 45% growth year on year for the last six years, with
University Leagues outdoing even that with over 80 teams in operation nationwide.  

Will American Football in general ever compete in participation levels with the likes of football or rugby over here? “They come hand in hand” says Kirkwood; “You really need to get a
franchise over here to get that mainstream appeal”.

So it seems that a lot hinges on the advancing of any plans Rodger Goodell and co may have going forward, but for that to happen the NFL will have to see consistency in our market as
Kirkwood expects us to host even more games in 2016. Three games are all well and good but can we sustain a sell-out crowd over eight games a year? It looks like we might find out as the International series expands rapidly.

Other Hurdles?

The next question is the branding of our team. Would a team move over from the NFL? Or would a league expansion take place (last utilised for the Houston Texans in 2002)? Either way we would be sure to face sturdy competition from places like Canada, Mexico and Los Angeles for the privilege.

The Jaguars, Rams, Chargers and Raiders have been touted as potential suitors for London over the last few years amongst others, although none of this is relevant until London is ready;
ultimately the team in the most flexible position come London’s readiness would be favourite to move over.

After that, the small issues of logistics, league schedules and the generally massive step of moving the NFL abroad would have to be solved.

How could the league’s schedule adapt to having a team abroad? With time differences, long journeys and all sorts of little niggles becoming magnified in the heat of mid-season. Well it
is 3,269 miles between London and Boston (the closest American city), only 200
more than that between Seattle and Boston; a trip the Patriots face every time they travel to the Seahawks, a daunting trip but a possible one all the same.

Past that, the players may also take some swaying. Would a 21 year old player coming out of college really want to be drafted a London franchise? Forcing young players to leave their country, family and friends could be a big enough issue in itself, never mind current

“No, I’m not excited to go to London; I don’t understand why they do that” said former Chicago Bears star linebacker, Brian Urlacher.

So, will it happen?

Will it happen? Yes.

Should it happen? No.

The NFL is ‘America’s game’ for a reason and taking that out of the country would be a big mistake in my eyes. It may bring in a lot of money for the league, and hugely benefit it’s worldwide presence, but to mess with such a winning formula would be a risk to say the least.

The British fan base may be able to fill the stadium for a season, but, years down the line. would it be worth the cost to fans coming from across the country, as it loses that novelty aspect?

Perhaps the return of a more serious European NFL league would prove more successful, sure it failed all those years ago but, with the huge boost in support over recent years and the
massive step up in British talent, the idea could at least be investigated again.

For me, it would be great to see a sustained effort in the International Series, with more teams coming over, but as a permanent fixture it just wouldn’t work and acts more as a vacation for
the players at times. Perhaps the Pro Bowl or the NFL Draft could produce that next level for the British audience but, for me. the league is a product of America and ultimately it’s that which draws me in.

Their culture, their style of promotion we just wouldn’t be able to recreate those in a way which would add to the league in the long run.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below...

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