Is America’s Game about to get a bit more British?

In just less than 5 weeks’ time the NFL will kick off its centurion season with all 32 teams hoping their roads will lead to Miami for Super Bowl LVI. The current favourites with the bookies are reigning champions the New England Patriots with Belichick’s men hoping to win a record breaking 7th Lombardi Trophy beating their current tied record of 6 (shared with the Pittsburgh Steelers). Other strong contenders consist of last year’s runners up the Los Angeles Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints but there are plenty of teams who fancy themselves as dark horses and can cause trouble for anybody in the NFL such as the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears or the Philadelphia Eagles (Go Birds!!). Football is undoubtably America’s game but could it be about to get a bit more British within the next few years? By that I don’t mean half time tea and scone breaks or saluting a picture of Hugh Grant before every game but there have been strong rumours of a potential London franchise and the rumours have only been getting stronger recently. I’m personally dead against a London franchise but I’m going to try and keep this as unbiased as possible. This post will take a look at potential strengths of a London team whilst also acknowledging the obvious problems that would come with it.

First off the good aspects of a London franchise and although I’m against it, there are fairly strong and obvious arguments. More than anything, a London team will bring more British eyes to the sport and get more people interested. Support for the NFL has skyrocketed in recent years and that’s obvious with the annual London Games. A clear example shows in 2016 when over 84,000 fans were in attendance at Wembley to see the Washington Redskins draw 27–27 with the Cincinnati Bengals. To put that in comparison to football for non-NFL fans, that’s probably the equivalent of 84,000 American Premier League fans turning up to see Burnley vs Brighton (statement’s fully open to argument, just my take). The numbers don’t lie, the NFL has a strong British fanbase and a team on their doorstep would only grow support from current non-NFL fans. It could also give UK fans who don’t support a specific team a reason to follow one. With a team closer to home it could make them feel more connected than they would following a team that plays stateside. It could also lead to a surge in British youngsters deciding they’d like to take up the sport and with the opening of an NFL academy in London could lead to more talented British players in the NFL. There are arguments for a London franchise, however it doesn’t mean that there are still a few problems that could arise with it and strong arguments against.

One of the strongest arguments against a London Franchise is just simply, why? Yes there’s a huge following for the NFL in the UK and that’s shown with annual London Games but does that really warrant a franchise to be born? To put it into comparison, let’s take the Barclays Premier League. According to Nielsen (used in a December 2018 Forbes article), 39.3 million Americans followed the Premier League in the 2017/18 season. That is a huge amount of support but would the Premier League ever agree to relocate a team Stateside or even start a new one because of the market? Of course not. Granted it would be a lot more difficult as the NFL has no relegation rule like in English football but you catch my drift. A branch out so ambitious would never happen in another sport despite a strong following from abroad so why treat the NFL any different. Also, I doubt highly any British fans would stop supporting their own adopted teams to start following a London team instead. As previously mentioned, I’m an Eagles fan and despite the fact most seasons are frustrating to say the very least (apart from the masterclass in the 2017 season which won us Super Bowl LII, forever in debt to that squad) there’s no chance I’d ever stop following them for a side closer to home because they’re my team. There would also probably be a bit of confusion surrounding the future of the London games. It’s possible that they would come to an end full stop which would be a big shame but with a London team playing in the capital regularly arguments would rise as to would there really be need for them with an existing UK franchise.

There’s also some tricky logistics surrounding a London team, most notably the cost of it all. The cost to send the rosters over for the London games can cost upwards of $200,000 without shipping equipment and other items. Costs would be huge for teams playing on the road to ship everything to the London and for a UK team to play Stateside. Training facilities could be an issue as there are no NFL level training facilities as of yet in the UK which could be used for an entire regular season meaning a large amount of money would have to be invested in order to build a new training ground. Costs would also be high for travelling fans to follow their team if they ended up playing on the road in London. Whilst a trip to London could be part of the novelty and a pull factor for American fans to see their team play on the road, it would be far from cheap which could put people off. The same is true about fans of a London franchise following them when they’re playing in the States meaning attendance for road games could be quite poor. One of the main questions surrounding a UK team is who would likely end up getting relocated for it to happen. The strongest rumour is that the Jacksonville Jaguars would move in order for the London franchise to happen. Jacksonville’s attendance has been slightly less on average than the TIAA Bank Field’s capacity with a 66,674 average for a 67,164 seater stadium for the 2018 season. Whilst that’s still a good attendance for the stadium’s size, it doesn’t really compare to the record 85,870 fans at Wembley who saw the Jaguars lose to the Eagles in October 2018. Whilst the rumour at the moment is the Jags don’t be surprised if it’s their central Floridian counterparts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who end up getting relocated. Their average attendance last season was only over 54,000 which is pretty naff for a stadium with the capacity of over 65,000. The owners of the Bucs and the Jags having a pretty strong knowledge of the UK sport market with their other investments (the Jaguars being owned by Fulham owner Shahid Khan and the Glazer family owning the Buccaneers and Manchester United) and with three franchises currently in Florida, don’t be too surprised if the Jaguars or Buccaneers get relocated. Whilst relocation is all too familiar for some fanbases such as the Chargers, Rams and soon the Raiders, it’s unfortunately part of the game making it even more of a kick in the teeth.

It’s fair to say that there won’t be a British franchise in the NFL within the next couple of years. However I personally think it will happen in the not too distant future. It’ll give UK fans a chance to see more live football and would result in more money for the relocated franchise with higher attendances (if it is the Jags or Bucks, I don’t see too much in the Bills rumours). If it does happen it will undoubtably be the most ambitious move in professional top level sport and will change the game forever.

The Popularity of American Sports in the UK and its Future

Christ it’s been a long time since the last post, sorry about that. I’ve been on holiday twice since I last posted and it’s been a pretty mental few weeks but we’re back. So, what’s happened in the meantime? Boris Johnson has been chosen as the new Prime Minister (eugh) and Europe are in the middle of a massive heatwave (less scary way of saying that the world is slowly dying). In the world of sport, England won the cricket world cup on the same day Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer in an unbelievable game of tennis for the Wimbledon crown. Irish golfer Shane Lowry won his first major, The Open Championship, held at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, many congrats Shane (I mean he’ll never read this but still, well done champ). Dubois vs Gorman lived up to expectation with Daniel Dubois making one hell of a statement with his knockout win, I’d personally love to see him fight Joe Joyce next. Another exciting fight has since been announced where #1 pound for pound king and current WBA super, WBO and Ring lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko takes on 2012 gold medal British Olympian Luke Campbell for the previously mentioned titles and the vacant WBC crown at the O2  in London (that is definitely getting its own post soon). And last (but not least), the USA women’s national team won their fourth world cup after beating the Netherlands 2-0 in the final.

And that sort of brings me to today’s topic, American sport. Whilst the USWNT winning the World Cup is an unbelievable achievement, football (or soccer) still isn’t too big of a game in the States with gridiron football (NFL), basketball and baseball being their most popular. And with this popularity has seen a rise in interest in these sports in the UK recently with many Brits supporting teams from those three sports I’ve mentioned (I only really follow the NFL and the Philly Eagles are my team. Go Birds!). Today I’m going to take a look at how popular the NFL, NBA and the MLB are in the UK and what it could mean for the future for the sport.

First off, football. British fans have been following the game for years and it’s popularity is only increasing. Since the London Games have started in 2007 more Brits have been drawn towards the sport and that popularity has shown with the increase of games held in the capital. This year, 4 games will be held in London (2 at Wembley and 2 at Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground) which is a joint record of games played in London tied with 2017. The attendance has been incredible over the years with on average a record 85,000 fans attending each game in 2018 according to statistics from Wembley Stadium. There are a number of British born players currently playing in the NFL including Superbowl 52 winner Jay Ajayi, Jack Crawford, Jermaine Eluemunor and Graham Gano. There are also some former British rugby players at NFL teams including former Worcester Warriors lock Christian Scotland–Williamson who’s now contracted to the Pittsburgh Steelers and former Wasps winger Christian Wade who recently signed with the Buffalo Bills. Whilst either are yet to play, they will most definitely bring more eyes from Britain onto the sport as people will have known them from their rugby careers. The future of the NFL will only be a positive one in the UK. With the popularity of the London games I can see possibly more games being held over here and possibly even in other parts of the country. World class stadiums like Old Trafford in Manchester or even the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff have held huge sporting events and would see huge attendances. The announcement of the NFL London Academy in May 2019 means more British born players will be seen in the league in years to come and that the interest here is huge. There have even been rumours of a London franchise being created, but those are just rumours as of yet, let’s see what happens there (my views on this fairly meh idea will be saved for another post). Gridiron football is already huge in the UK and with the points mentioned it will only get bigger.

Like football, basketball also has a following in the UK. The NBA also have regular season games held in London with the first held back 2011. However, differently to the NFL the London games are not a series per se as games in the regular season are held “globally” rather than England exclusively. However the “global games” in the regular season most recently have only been held in the UK and Mexico. What differs Basketball from American Football is that a British Basketball League exists with 12 teams competing. Whilst the league is not watched as much as the NBA (nor is it anywhere as big) it still shows that there is a market for basketball in the UK and that it’s a sport that’s supported. Some British fans worry for the future of the sport in the UK as the NBA announced they’d only be holding one global game in Europe in the 2020 season and that’ll be held in Paris. Rightly fans are anxious about what the future holds however I personally believe that the NBA can have a bright future in the UK. The opening of an academy would give young British basketball players the chance to develop further at a high level and to follow in the footsteps of past British born stars such as Ben Gordon and Luol Deng and present players such as OG Anunoby who plays for current NBA champions the Toronto Raptors. The NBA is followed strongly in the UK and there is no doubt in my mind it can get even bigger, however it would mean taking the same steps as the NFL in securing big success in the UK.

Lastly, baseball. A sport which has seen little interest in the UK but it looks as if that could all be about to change. A baseball league system does exist in the UK however it’s not too popular with cricket being the main batting sport (Ben Stokes for Prime Minister after his display in the World Cup final, Jofra Archer as his deputy). In June 2019, the first ever London games were held where the Boston Red Sox hosted the New York Yankees at West Ham’s London Stadium with the Yankees winning both. An agreement was signed to host four regular season games across two years with the previously mentioned Red Sox–Yankees fixtures and the St. Louis Cardinals hosting the Chicago Cubs over two days next year. Personally I think this will be incredible for the sport and its growth within the UK. It’ll put more eyes from Brits on the sport and will gain new support and more fans as time goes on. My prediction is that another deal will be signed so that more regular season games will be held in London beyond 2020 and the popularity will grow. Like the NFL, an annual London Series will probably be born attracting bigger crowds as time goes on.

Whilst traditionally American sports may not overtake British favourites such as association football or rugby in popularity it’s still exciting to see how much they are growing in the UK. It seems that it will only increase in terms of fans watching and participation in the sports across the country. These are exciting times for British football and baseball fans and whilst the future for the NBA-UK relationship is unknown at best its popularity and support will ever die down completely. As Yazz once famously said: “The only way is up”.