The Super Bowl was seen as a novelty event when it was first broadcast live in Britain 35 years ago, but since the inaugural NFL International Series game in 2007, fans have flocked to Wembley and Twickenham to watch regular season games.
British NFL supporters have continued to show a thirst for gridiron at the homes of the sport’s elder cousins in soccer and rugby, with Wembley in September last year witnessing a record 84,592 crowd to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Baltimore Ravens.
However, with four NFL games in Britain from next year, yesterday’s championship showdown between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis could herald a landmark year for the sport on the other side of the Atlantic.
This year is particularly significant for NFL UK, as the Oakland Raiders are to take on the Seattle Seahawks at Tottenham Hotspur’s new 62,000-capacity stadium on Oct. 14.
It will be the first time teams will play on a custom-built NFL field in London, which will be engineered to raise from beneath the soccer pitch.
However, questions remain over whether the NFL can forge its own path in Britain’s crowded sports market and fulfil’ the organization’s aim of becoming “everybody’s second-favorite sport.”
“I think this Sunday has more significance for us in this country than past Super Bowls, because the New England Patriots are the most supported team in the UK, playing the Philadelphia Eagles, who have never won a Super Bowl, but have a British-born running back [Jay Ajayi] playing,” NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood said.
“We average through the regular season more than a million viewers a week and that grows over the season, and through the post-season becomes substantially bigger, so I think we’re quite a long way away from when we were seen as being an imported sport,” he added.
The idea of a London franchise has long been mooted, especially since the collapse of NFL Europe in 2007, but Kirkwood’s point about the Patriots means even a British-based team would not necessarily convert the most ardent of fans.
When asked if she would follow a potential franchise closer to home, UK Patriots fan club member Rebecca Downey said: “Nope. I could never love another franchise, even one close to home as much as I love the Patriots.”
With the game being played overnight in Britain, it allows a unique window for the sport to have no competition for viewers. Dozens of London bars and restaurants have extended their opening hours significantly to host Super Bowl parties.
Ratings for Sky’s coverage of the NFL has seen a 40 percent increase year-on-year in the latest figures, Kirkwood said.
“Last year, we had about 3.5 million people stay up and watch what was an unbelievable climax,” Kirkwood said, referring to the record number of viewers who saw the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons. “We’ll be lucky if we get half as good a game as last year.”
However, the hard work will not end after yesterday’s clash, with UK-based Eagles fan club organizer Anthony Bullick believing that good communication is key to challenging the dominance of other team sports.
“The toughest hurdle for the sport to challenge the likes of cricket and rugby in the UK is the perception that ‘there’s too many breaks in play,’” Bullick said. “When you speak to fans who started following the sport in the last few years, most say as soon as they understood the rules, they didn’t really notice the breaks as they were discussing play calls and other in-game analysis.”
Although not entirely in NFL UK’s control, Kirkwood said that a team could come to fruition within the next 10 years.
“We’ve got to a stage where that kind of concept becomes more compelling and much more doable. Whether it happens in a particular time frame I don’t know,” he said.
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