How the NFL is getting Brits to buy into American football

As almost 3 million Brits are aware, the NFL draft is taking place this week. MT looks at the slow-and-steady growth of American football in the UK.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 09 May 2014

The NFL is big business in the US. The American football league pulls in around $9bn (£5.3bn) in revenues every year, the most of any sport in the US, while the annual advertising-cum-pop culture orgy that is the Superbowl ensnares an average of 110 million viewers. To put that in context, a mere 11.7 million fans tuned into the FA Cup final in the UK in 2012 (although the FA claimed 500 million watched it worldwide last year) and the Premier League’s 20 clubs made just £2.7bn between them in the 2012-13 season.

NFL's stop-start play (which makes room for the US' not infrequent ad breaks) often drives British football fans mad, accustomed as they are to standard 90-minute games. But NFL’s UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood is convinced the NFL makes for a more exciting league and, more importantly, one Brits can buy into.

That's partly because, compared with British footie, it is uniquely egalitarian. Each year, the worst NFL team selects graduating college players first in the ‘draft’ (between 8th-10th May this year), revenue is shared between the 32 teams and there is a very un-soccer salary cap at $133m per team (for a maximum of 53 players in a squad). 

‘Every single fan has reasons to believe every year, because you have competitive balance,’ explains Kirkwood. ‘We’re in a world where increasingly the indigenous nature of sport is becoming less important and it’s more about the quality of the sport.’

The sport, also known as Gridiron after some bright spark decided the lines on the pitch looked like a cooking grill, has been making a slow but steady play for the UK market. This autumn, three already sold-out, competitive matches will be played at Wembley, up from two last year and one each year from 2007 to 2012. Since that first match, the sport has invested more than $100m in the UK. There are even 75 American football teams at British universities, up from 42 back in 2007. NFL is clearly not content with sitting pretty Stateside.

4 million Brits watched this year's Superbowl

‘It’s been increasing in popularity in the States… [but] at some point in time, probably sooner than you’d realise, you’re going to hit a plateau because there’s a limited opportunity to grow from that strength,’ says Kirkwood. ‘One of the thoughts about trying to become more international is to spread yourself while you’re in a position of strength.’

The UK was an obvious market to start with – and not just because of language, Kirkwood says. ‘The pie is so much bigger,’ he explains. ‘From a sports rights perspective, the UK is bigger than France, Germany and Italy combined.’

It’s also a relatively familiar market for the NFL, which actually enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1980s, when new kid on the TV block Channel 4 aired a weekly highlights show at the same time as Songs of Praise. However, the advent of sports-heavy Sky in 1989; football, rugby and cricket getting more professionalised and a misplaced investment in a grassroots American football league in Europe meant it didn’t last.

Kirkwood is tight-lipped on the revenues the NFL gets in the UK from TV rights, tickets and sponsorship from companies including Pepsi, Budweiser, Marriott Hotels and AON. However, he is keen to point out its UK fanbase has doubled since 2009 to just under 3 million ‘avid’ fans, according to the NFL's own research, and 4 million Brits tuned into this year’s Superbowl (850,000 of whom were still watching at 2.30am). On the other hand, Sky’s 70 live NFL games each get only 110,000 viewers or so (although that still makes it the seventh most-watched sport), while Channel 4’s weekly highlights show pulls in some 200,000.

Kirkwood is aiming to grow that fanbase (‘avid’ or otherwise) to at least 4 million by the end of 2015 and wants NFL to become the fifth-most popular sport on TV, behind football, rugby, cricket and Formula 1. If enough fans come onboard, the NFL’s 32 team owners may even consider putting a team here full-time, playing eight home games a season, although again Kirkwood was reluctant to put any numbers on that.

However, even the three games the UK currently hosts is a ‘major commitment’, Kirkwood says. ‘We’re dealing with some incredibly valuable real estate. These are games that would be very successful in the States.’ The logistics aren’t simple either - incredibly, 50% of NFL players don’t even have passports.

There is clearly enough money for NFL in the UK to justify a few trips to American passport offices. Whether it will convert enough Brits into diehard Draft-watchers to make an entire team swap fries and milkshakes for tea and cakes, though, remains to be seen.

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