By Tim Groves
Interest in American football on these shores began taking off over 30 years ago, when Channel 4 first brought the sport to our living rooms in 1982. The 21 live games broadcast on the same channel during the 2014/15 season was the most ever shown on free-to-air television in a single season in the UK.
With less and less sport available on terrestrial television, that is a significant factor in American football’s growth. And when those matches are added to over 80 more shown live on Sky Sports, we get about as much action as viewers in the US - and there is clearly an appetite for it.
Indeed, NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood’s aim is for American football to become the fourth biggest sport in the country behind football, rugby and cricket in the near future. And figures from the British American Football Association and its director of student football Andy Fuller showing that playing numbers have doubled in the last few years suggest it is making significant headway.
That growth is being seen in the retail sector as well. John Pimperton of the Leicestershire-based Football America UK store, who used to play at a decent level himself, says there may have been a lull for a while, but interest is now booming among adults and children alike.
“The NFL was popular in this country in the 1980s and then petered out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but is now coming back with force,” he explains. “Some of the people who started watching the sport in the 1980s are also getting their kids and grandchildren involved and it is really taking off.
“There is a lot of interest from mums and dads and their kids, who are watching the NFL and college football and then asking about starting to play, what size football and kit to buy and the best first pair of gloves to get.”
Over four million people in the UK stayed up late to watch the Super Bowl in 2014 and the NFL’s following here has increased rapidly since regular season games started taking place at Wembley in 2007.
After six annual fixtures in London, the home of English football played host to two American football games in 2013, which was increased to three last year, with all of them selling out more than seven months prior to kick-off.
Such demand has led to talk of a franchise being relocated to London in future and, while that may be some years away from becoming a reality, it is no longer a pipe dream. It’s slowly being seen as a question of when and not if.
Jacksonville Jaguars would appear the most likely candidate at present, having agreed to play one game per season in London between 2013 and 2016 and given that owner Shahid Khan also owns Fulham Football Club.
And while any professional team basing itself in London would come complete with a playing roster of its own from the US, it would also have a sizeable pool of players in the UK to pick from as well if they could begin to nurture British talent.
Since 2011, the number of people over the age of 16 playing the sport in the UK has more than doubled from 19,500 to over 40,000. Since the first NFL game at Wembley in 2007, the number of teams taking part in the British Universities American Football League has risen from 42 to over 90, with the amount of registered players, coaches and officials now well in excess of 4,000.
That growth in playing numbers is showing no sign of abating. It is certainly benefiting Football America UK and Pimperton says participation in American football is no longer confined to certain areas of the country.
“We’re seeing huge growth in interest in the sport and we do quite a lot of work with the governing body BAFA, who are constantly telling us about new teams starting,” he explains. “Anywhere you can think of in the UK, there is probably an American football team nearby now or one being started up.
“Interest in the NFL does have an impact on us as a business, but the massive boom in participation is what has helped us to grow. BAFA has done a fantastic job of increasing participation in the sport across the board and that has helped us to achieve growth in sales.”
As well as boosting popularity, the two NFL games staged at Wembley in 2013 had a direct impact of £32 million on the capital’s economy, according to a report by the Sports Business Group at professional services firm Deloitte. The effect is being felt in Leicestershire as well.
“We are based just off the M1 north of Leicester and have noticed that when there is an NFL game at Wembley on the Sunday we get a huge influx of visitors to the shop on the Saturday afternoon,” Pimperton says.
“They may not play American football, but are on their way to the game and pop in to see the equipment and NFL merchandise we have started stocking, such as hats, jerseys and mini football helmets.”
It has been forecast that a London-based NFL franchise would generate in excess of £100 million for the local economy, but it could have an even bigger impact on participation. American football’s recent UK growth has been impressive, but the British boom looks set to get even bigger.
“Teams like the London Blitz and Bristol Aztecs have so many people interested in playing American football that they train and run development squads that are playing in competitive games as well as their premier teams,” Pimperton adds.
“Every aspect of American football in this country is growing at the moment and it is all heading in the right direction.”