The NFL Across the Pond – What’s Behind American Football’s Growth in the UK

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American Football has been played in the UK for over one hundred years, but it's only in the last decade that the sport has truly taken off.

Read on to find out what's behind this sudden surge and why so many of the UK’s next generation of fans are falling in love with the NFL.

“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?

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has already hosted some major NFL matches, including Atlanta Falcons - New York Jets in 2021

The History

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. The UK has also seen it's first ever purpose built NFL stadium, with the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium's interchangeable Football and American Football pitches hosting NFL teams such as The New York Jets.

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. American Football has however adopted a more modern approach.

Sports Business Journal and Business Insider have both explored how the NFL’s willingness to adapt to a younger audience, through partnerships with online platforms such as TikTok and Roblox has helped the league attract a younger audience.

This investment has certainly paid off in the UK, where NFL International Fan Tracker found that 68% of NFL fans in the UK are aged 18-44. This comes at the same time as the UK recorded its highest Super Bowl TV attendance ever in 2021, as four million viewers tuned in to the game across BBC and SKY. 

Laura Woods (left), Jason Bell (centre) and Osi Umenyiora (right) have helped fandom in the UK grow through expert analysis and strong entertainment value

Broadcasting boom

As UK fans enjoy having consistent access to exciting regular season games close to home, they have also been given increased accessibility to broadcasted NFL games.

In 2022, British television network ITV announced a three-year partnership with the NFL which sees some of the league's biggest games, including the Super Bowl, made available to fans across the UK and Ireland on free-to-air television.

With expert analysis from two-time Super Bowl winner Jason Bell and award-winning analyst Osi Umenyiora, joined by Sports Presenter of the Year, Laura Woods, the young NFL fan-base in the UK has access to all they need to help their fandom blossom.

Previous attempts at broadcasting the NFL to the UK faced an uphill battle due to challenges with time difference. New kick-off times in the league have however been introduced with the majority of games now taking place during prime time in the UK, with coverage predominantly starting at either 6pm or 9pm. 

Beyond the Match
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