Down And Distance
Why the NFL's UK push is failing, and what the league should do about it
Bodean’s BBQ in Soho, London is the city’s finest BBQ joint. If it were here in Texas, we probably wouldn’t stop by all that often, but that’s not an indictment of the food—their brisket may not compete with Franklin BBQ or Kreuz’s Market, but whose does? Still, it’s not the food that packs people in on Sundays. It’s the football.
Most places you go in the UK, “football” refers to a round ball that gets kicked a lot. At Bodean’s, it’s the game we know—the one that involves Tony Romo choking in the 4th quarter, and Jason Pierre-Paul peeling quarterbacks’ heads back up off the turf. There aren’t many places in London that show NFL games every week, so on Sunday nights (a noon kickoff in London is at 6pm), Bodean’s is home for a host of US expats, professional gamblers, American tourists who need an NFL fix, and even the occasional English fan.
The breakdown at Bodean’s is usually at least two-thirds American, with the rest consisting of fans from England and the rest of Europe. It's nice for homesick expats, but it's not exactly a great ratio for a league trying to develop an overseas audience. And, as the NFL prepares to play its fifth annual regular season game at London’s Wembley Stadium—and the week of “we could see a London-based team happening soon,” and “maybe we could host a Super Bowl at Wembley one year” hype picks up yet again, despite the fact that ticket sales for the Week 7 matchup between the Bears and the Bucs have been sluggish—figuring out exactly what a European fanbase wants from the game needs to be a priority for the league.
Here are some things they could learn if they spent some time talking to people down at Bodean’s.
Jay-Z made the Yankee cap more famous than a Yankee can. For English fans—the young ones who adore American hip-hop and street culture—football isn’t some weird novelty, it’s a way to be in touch with what’s popular stateside.
British fans will only care about a British team.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell renewed talk last week about the idea of adding a British expansion team. But by “British team,” that shouldn’t mean “a team made up of 53 American players who practice in London.” If Goodell wants British fans to care about the team, he'll need a team with actual British players.
When the NFL Europe launched, the league featured two British teams: The London Monarchs and the Scottish Claymores. Both teams eventually relocated to Germany, where the decades-long presence of US military bases made the game more viable than anywhere else in Europe. I asked a few die-hard British fans if they ever cared about the NFL Europe teams.
“I was never interested,” Robin Pierce, chairman of the British American Football Association’s London Blitz, told me—a team ostensibly from London that consisted of nothing but American carpetbaggers didn’t exactly capture imaginations, he explained.
Stephen Hutchinson, who played tailback for the Monarchs from 1995-1997 and the Claymores from 99-02, said that European players never got a fair shake. “We were just there for marketing,” he said, and the league favored developing American prospects over letting European players see the field.
A rule change was instituted in 2004 requiring that at least one European player had to be on the field every down, but it was too little, too late for the Claymores and the Monarchs, who had both fled to Germany by then.
Obviously, the league recognized that British fans wanted to cheer for some British players, but for all of the talk about expanding the game to the UK, the NFL hasn't done much yet to encourage grassroots development of the game.
To most potential fans, the game is a novelty.
You know what’s not hard? Convincing a British friend to watch an American football game with you. You know what is hard? Convincing a British friend to watch a second game with you.
The first regular season NFL game played at Wembley, in 2007, was an immediate sell-out. It made sense: How many chances does a British audience get to see an American football game that actually matters? Now that the answer to that question is once a year, ticket sales are predictably slumping. It’s hard to care about a game that mostly happens in a faraway country.
But there is a strong potential audience in the UK who view the game differently. Walk down Oxford Street any day of the week and count the number of young British men wearing New York Yankees caps. Those guys don’t care in the slightest about baseball; they wear the cap because they do care about American youth culture, and Jay-Z made the Yankee cap more famous than a Yankee can. For English fans—the young ones who adore American hip-hop and street culture—football isn’t some weird novelty, it’s a way to be in touch with what’s popular stateside.
The tickets that have sold out so far for the Wembley game are the cheapest seats—the £35 upper end-zone tickets that a young English guy who’s interested in the game might be able to afford. The £72.50 nosebleed sideline tickets ( $115), not to mention the £149 premium club seats ($235), are out of reach for all but the wealthiest British sports fans—and those people aren’t buying tickets to an NFL game.
Rather than try to appeal to an audience of mainstream sports fans, who will, at best, think of it as their 4th favorite sport, the NFL could market the game specifically to the sort of audiences who want something different.
Football is part of a culture war in the UK.
The Tony Blair/George W. Bush relationship wasn’t great for the sense of British identity. Watching their country’s Prime Minister turn into the sidekick of a President that nobody respected during the run-up to the Iraq War was not a proud moment. That was a few years ago now, but the push back against that led to some superficial anti-Americanism that manifested itself in, among other ways, a renewed disdain for American football. Mention “rugby with pads” to an Englishman and prepare to have the piss taken out of you, in other words.
The fans who do care about the game, meanwhile, are passionate. Most English fans who spend their Sundays at Bodean’s call our game football and the British game soccer. The rest of their countrymen may be only dimly aware that the game exists at all, but the people who care... they really care.
To put it another way: The NFL can’t possibly occupy anything close to the role in England that it occupies in the US. But what it can do is be an object of counter-culture cool.
Rather than try to appeal to an audience of mainstream sports fans, who will, at best, think of it as their 4th favorite sport, the NFL could market the game specifically to the sort of audiences who want something different; the British equivalent of the limited, but ravenous, US hipster fanbase for soccer on this side of the Atlantic. With those fans, and the potential audience of British youth who identify strongly with American youth culture, and a push toward developing the game in the UK as something that British people can actually play, well, now you're looking at something different.
It’s not really that complicated. To succeed in the UK, the NFL basically just has to present itself completely differently from how the league is viewed in the US.
Or it could prepare to send two teams to England every year to play in an increasingly empty Wembley Stadium, and let the UK marketing push flop like the NFL Europe.