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NFL showing growth in England

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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Long before the NFL began hosting annual regular-season games in London, before talk of an NFL franchise in England turned from a pipe dream to a distinct possibility, and before this funny game Americans call football saw a 50 percent growth in UK collegiate participation since the NFL began playing here every year, American football was a mere novelty across the pond. It was a game Brits saw as a softer version of rugby. After all, these “football” players had to be protected with helmets and pads.

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As Gary Marshall prepares to travel to Wembley Stadium for the annual NFL game there with this weekend’s matchup between the Chicago Bears with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he remembers those days well. Marshall recalls walking through a shopping arcade in his hometown of Newcastle in the 1980s and seeing a huge crowd outside a store. Marshall waded to the front and was enthralled with what he saw on the TV: Miami Dolphins vs. Cincinnati Bengals, a sport he’d never before seen, mixing the physical and the cerebral in what seemed like a real-life chess game.

Back then, America’s most popular sport had only recently been making inroads in England, with the earliest adopters taking motorcycle helmets and welding on facemasks to play the game. That day, Marshall watched a rookie named Dan Marino toss three touchdowns. Then he went to buy a magazine on American football. And then he was hooked.

This weekend, Marshall – now the chairman of the sport’s national governing body, the British American Football Association, and a diehard Dolphins fan – will be a special guest of the NFL for the fifth regular-season game in as many years at the largest stadium in Europe. He’ll be fresh off a trip to Parliament to launch a group promoting American football. There will be an NFL rally in Trafalgar Square, a talent search for young British athletes who want to play for American universities and a forum where fans can question NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

All of which makes a football fan in the U.S. scratch his head: Why this bloody commotion in a country that can barely tell a touchdown from a first down?

“We’re still a minor sport,” Marshall said, “but it’s something we’re trying to grow. And the enthusiasm of football fans here – we’re all diehards.”

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So what’s the end game of this annual NFL goodwill tour to London? Is this indicative of a larger shifting of the sands for American football, a sport that enthralls the Lower 48 but nowhere else? Is this a ploy to grow the sport overseas, as the NBA has accomplished to great success? Or for the NFL, is this something bigger, with NFL owners’ recent unanimous vote to extend Wembley games through 2016, just another step in a process that could ultimately end with a franchise in England?

In a word: yes.

“It’s a step-wise strategy,” said John York, co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers and Chairman of the NFL’s International Committee. “The games have been well-received when we’ve had one game a year. … We’ll see if they continue to go up with two games, and trying to get a team or more than a team to commit to coming over to London on a regular basis. We’ll see if we can get some fan affinity for a single team.”

“And if things continue to grow,” York continued, “there is clearly a potential of having a franchise in London.”

The obstacles are many. First, there’s the overseas travel. (York points out West Coast teams always lead the league in travel anyway, and trips from West Coast to East Coast are no different than trips from East Coast to England.) Then there were the ill-fated experiments with the World League of American Football in the 1990s and NFL Europa in the 2000s. (Those, of course, were minor leagues, not the NFL.) And then there are the NFL’s big international successes that have yet to produce an international franchise: the 2005 Cardinals-49ers game in Mexico City that attracted the largest regular-season crowd ever, and the Buffalo Bills’ flirtation with Toronto, a continuing five-year courting process with one regular-season Toronto game a year. Despite these North American successes, the gaze of NFL executives appears fixed on the other side of the Atlantic.

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And while NFL executives have no illusions American football will supplant soccer in the British sporting heart — or even surpass rugby — they point to positive signs.

The NFL boasts a fan base of 11 million in the UK, including 2 million “avid fans,” a 32 percent increase over two years ago. Some 8 million Brits watched the Super Bowl last year. Each game at Wembley sells about $1 million in merchandise and more than 80,000 tickets, though this year’s ticket sales have lagged, which NFL executives blame on the lockout. NFL television viewership has nearly doubled since the Wembley games began in 2007. And British universities have instituted a national flag-football league this year as well as a women’s tackle league.

It seems odd to Americans, the idea of bangers and mash alongside burgers and brats at tailgates, or Budweiser served in pints instead of plastic bottles. But remember: The NFL is a business, and businesses must grow. It’s tough to imagine the NFL becoming any bigger than it already is in the United States. England is the logical next frontier.

“London and the United Kingdom itself are tremendously fertile ground for the sport to develop,” said Chris Parsons, the NFL vice president of international. “Having these games in London is an unbelievably good catalyst to drive that growth. It’s really bringing the NFL to life in a way you never really get to see if you just watch on TV.”

For Marshall, a schoolteacher, he hopes this weekend’s game helps British youth realize this sport’s worth playing.

“Until people actually see it, they think it’s rugby with pads on, so it must be a softer game,” Marshall said. “I’ve played both games, and a good hit is a good hit. After that, it’s really just getting people to try it. And once they try it, they love it.”

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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