The NFL Across the Pond – What’s Behind American Football’s Growth in the UK
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“American Football” is no longer just American.
History tells us that the pigskin ball first flew across the Atlantic well over a hundred years ago, but it wasn’t until very recently that the sport truly captured the hearts of its cousins across the Atlantic.
The NFL is the most popular sports league in the United States, by a wide margin. Approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population watched Super Bowl LVI, with an estimated 208 million-plus viewers, the NFL announced in partnership with Nielsen. In 2021, a whopping 75 of the top 100 programmes on television in the U.S. were NFL games. That same year, an Ipsos poll asked American adults whether they were fans of a sport or not and a majority (51%) said they were fans of professional football, which was the highest of any sport.
So, with all that success in mind, interest in the NFL amongst UK viewers perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, but what really lies behind the rising interest, and what does the future look like for the NFL in the UK?
Author of Touchdown: UK, Nick Richards writes in his book how American Football was first brought to the British Isles in 1910, when two visiting US warships played the first ever game on UK soil.
For the best part of the next 70 years, the game in the UK remained a sport mostly played between US service men and women.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when the game truly took off, when people in the UK could watch the National Football League (NFL) on their televisions and the NFL hosted their first ever preseason game at Wembley Stadium.
A series of pre-season games continued into the 1990s, before history was once again re-written in 2007, when the first NFL league game was played outside of North America, in front of 81,000 fans at Wembley, as the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins.
Since 2007, the NFL has hosted regular season games every year (with the exception of 2020, due to Covid-19) in the UK.
Why American Football is taking off in the UK
Since the introduction of annual regular season games being played in the UK, interest in the league, ticket sales and tv-viewers across the country has grown rapidly.
Traditional football in the UK has opted for a more conservative approach when it comes to matters such as technology and entertainment. The NFL’s willingness to adapt to a younger audience, through partnerships with online social media platform TikTok and online gaming platform Roblox is one which has seen the league attract a younger audience in the UK.
This was made evident through reports from 2021 which showed that 43% of NFL fans in the UK are aged 16-34. This comes at the same time as the UK recorded its highest Super Bowl TV attendance ever in 2021, as 4 million viewers tuned in to the game across BBC and SKY.
Another contributing factor to the growing figures in the country is that the majority of NFL games now take place during prime time in the UK, with coverage predominantly starting around 6pm and 9pm.
SPORTFIVE: Building the Future of the NFL in the UK
After seeing the huge potential for the games’ growth in the UK, the New York Jets have been working closely with SPORTFIVE to take America’s most popular game to the UK.
Over the last year, SPORTFIVE have launched a series of initiatives to boost the Jets’ presence in the UK, including launching UK-based social media accounts, a Digital Fan Hub, centred on giving UK fans the best supporter experience and hosting their first ever live draft pick in London, at the Shard.
The remainder of 2022 will see SPORTFIVE and the Jets launch an official UK podcast, ‘NYJ: Touchdown UK’, as well as the team investing in grassroots American Football, where Jets players and staff will work closely with younger generations across the UK to provide education and training on the sport.
As well as teams like the New York Jets investing heavily in their presence across the pond, the NFL has signed a three-year partnership with ITV, which will see several key games, including the Super Bowl LVII, broadcasted on free-to-air television across the UK and Ireland.
Next Stop: Germany
Building on the success the NFL has seen in the UK, the league has set its sights on expanding in other parts of Europe as well.
In February, the league announced it will hold the first-ever regular-season game in Germany, when the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play in Munich on November 13, 2022. That game is part of four International Series games that Germany will host over the next four seasons.
With the league’s efforts in Germany beginning to gain momentum, SPORTFIVE recently announced a partnership with the Kansas City Chiefs to collaborate in the German market on international strategy and selling strategic business relationships.
With key milestones being reached in UK and Germany, one thing is certain, the future of American Football in Europe is in very safe hands.