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NFL strikes chord with British fans

China Daily | Updated: 2018-02-06 07:51
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LONDON - The Super Bowl was seen as a foreign novelty event when it was first broadcast live in Britain 35 years ago, but since London hosted the inaugural NFL International Series game in 2007, fans have flocked to Wembley and Twickenham to watch regular-season games.

British NFL supporters have continued to show a thirst for American football, with Wembley witnessing a record crowd of 84,592 to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Baltimore Ravens in September.

This year is particularly significant for NFL UK, as the Oakland Raiders will face the Seattle Seahawks at the new 62,000-seat home of London soccer club Tottenham Hotspur on Oct 14.

Not just a new venue, the stadium will mark the first time teams will play on a custom-built NFL field in London, which will be engineered to elevate from beneath the soccer pitch.

Yet despite this exciting development, questions remain over whether the NFL can forge its own path in Britain's crowded sports market and fulfill the league's aim of becoming "everybody's second favorite sport".

"I think this year's Super Bowl had more significance for us in this country than past championships because the New England Patriots are the most supported team in the UK, playing the Philadelphia Eagles, who had never won a Super Bowl but have a British-born running back (Jay Ajayi) in their lineup," said NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood.

"We have an aspiration to be everybody's second favorite sport and the stats back up that we're starting to make substantial inroads. Through the regular season, we average more than a million viewers a week and that grows over the season. In the playoffs, it becomes substantially bigger.

"So I think we're quite a long way away from when we were seen as being an imported sport and something that happened thousands of miles away and maybe a bit of a novelty."

The notion of a London franchise has long been mooted, especially since the collapse of NFL Europe in 2007, but Kirkwood's point about the Patriots means even a British-based team would not necessarily convert the most ardent of fans.

When asked by Reuters if she would follow a potential franchise closer to home, UK Patriots fan club member Rebecca Downey said: "Nope. I could never love another franchise, even one close to home as much as I love the Patriots."

Unique window

With Sunday's game played overnight in Britain, it allowed a unique window for the sport to have no competition for viewers.

Dozens of bars and restaurants in London extended their opening hours significantly to host Super Bowl parties, and the Eagles' 41-33 victory was televised across four channels, three on satellite broadcaster Sky and the other on the terrestrial BBC.

UK-based Eagles fan club organizer Anthony Bullick said good communication is key to challenging the dominance of other team sports in Britain.

"The toughest hurdle for the sport to challenge the likes of cricket and rugby in the UK is the perception that there's too many breaks in play," Bullick said.

"When you speak to fans who started following the sport in the last few years, most say as soon as they understood the rules, they didn't really notice the breaks as they were discussing play calls and other in-game analysis."

Long way off

Even with more than 100 universities having their own American football teams, a national league patterned on the NFL remains a long way off, hence a British franchise is seen as the most likely next step from hosting matches.

Kirkwood concedes that a UK-based team could come to fruition within the next 10 years.

"We've got to a stage where that kind of concept becomes more compelling and much more doable," he said.

Reuters

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