NFL UK: Tackling the fan problem

With American Football gaining in popularity in the UK, is it only a matter of time until the sport has a formalised league? Zach Kemp-Hall explores the sport’s potential on this side of the pond.

NFL UK: Tackling the fan problem

On February 3rd 2019, 92 men will take to the field in Atlanta, Georgia to throw themselves into each other as hard, as fast and as many times as they can. I’m speaking, of course, about the 53rd Super Bowl – an American national holiday as important and institutionalised as Christmas and Thanksgiving. With tickets to NFL UK games “harder to get than a Beyoncé concert” it comes as no big surprise that the Oakland Raiders are strongly considering the possibility of playing all eight of their 2019 home games in London. An NFL team based full-time in the UK seems like all but an inevitability, but would this popularity equate to loyalty?

The numbers certainly seem to back up the idea. Sky Sports now show as many NFL games per week as it does Premier League, Wembley annually sells out all 84,592 of its seats for NFL games hosted there within minutes, ticket demand is up 333% over the last five years – everything seems to point towards a team in the heart of London being an instant and overwhelming success. From examining the cold, hard stats this is an absolutely valid assumption to make – but it misses the integral point: being a fan of a sport is vastly different to being a fan of a team.

Crucially, the NFL has already had failed attempts at international expansion. Most notably with the gradual decline and eventual disbandment of the former NFL Europe team (and inaugural NFL Europe champions) the London Monarchs after just seven years (lasting 1991 through to 1998). The slow but sure demise of the Monarchs (repackaged as the Berlin Thunder until that team’s closure in 2007) compounded the disappointment of the NFL’s previous attempt at worldwide expansion: the World League of American Football. A number of reasons have been suggested for the eventual dissolution of the Monarchs (and NFL Europe in general) with many landing on the age-old concern of money. But there may be a deeper reason behind the failure in this story: loyalty.

So much of being a team’s fan in the UK is embedded in loyalty; riding the ups and downs of a team through relegations and cup victories; building an almost tangible emotional connection to a team chosen often entirely due to its stadium being figuratively - or literally for some - on your doorstep.

So much of being a team’s fan in the UK is embedded in loyalty

As shown in our GREATNESS report, one of the five roads to being a great brand in the UK is ‘Celebrating Origins’ – emphasizing history and remaining true to one’s roots. English football teams often excel at Celebrating Origins, instilling a sense of history in their fans and, as our report states, “enduring the test of time”. Without ever lacing up a pair of boots for the club they swear allegiance to, UK fans adopt the team’s legacy and group identity as their own, feeling the exhilarating wins or crushing defeats of every game over the course of their lifetime. For many the group identity defines a large part, if not all, of one’s individual identity; with “I’m an Arsenal/Tottenham/Blyth Spartans fan, always have been, always will be” the definitive, fundamental attribute of their character.

Most NFL fans could only dream of having that sense of security. The Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders, for example, are being sued by the city of Oakland over their move to Vegas in 2020, and will have to spend 2019 in exile. This is seen by many as the perfect opportunity for a test run for a full year of ‘home’ games being played in London – in spite of the logistical and scheduling nightmare this creates – and the fact that the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is being built from the ground up to host NFL games (with a retractable grass pitch and extra-large locker rooms) means the idea now seems more plausible than ever. But would UK fans adopt the Raiders as their own?

Examining the heritage of English football might help to answer this question.

When Woolwich Arsenal FC moved across the Thames in 1913, it sparked a heated rivalry between the North London natives Tottenham Hotspur and the noisy new neighbours Arsenal FC (not-so-affectionately labeled the “Woolwich Nomads” by Tottenham fans) that resonates to this day. Similarly, Wimbledon F.C’s relocation to Milton Keynes (becoming MK Dons in the process) in 2004 generated some of the most intense fan backlash seen in the history of sports, with the reformed ‘AFC Wimbledon’s’ overtaking of MK Dons in the football league pyramid viewed as vindication and karmic justice by many.

English football teams often excel at Celebrating Origins, instilling a sense of history in their fans

Association football rarely sees catastrophic team relocations and upheaval of roots like this; and when it does the results are grisly and hugely controversial. Football fans in the UK build lifelong and passionate support of their clubs, spending thousands of pounds a year to see their team week-in, week-out in the town where they’ve spent their entire lives. To have this support ripped away via your team moving across the country and in to a flashier, newer stadium purpose built for them by a rival town would be wholly unacceptable to any fan you’d ask. Yet if you’re an American Football fan, and certainly if you’re a Raiders fan, this is par for the course.

Not only would any NFL UK fan base be eternally sat under the cloud of potential relocation and previous failures, there’s a question of where the devoted supporters of a new London team would even come from in the first place. An argument could be made that the devout American Football fans in the UK already have their teams; and the record setting attendances are for games with already ingrained fan support. There’s no guarantee these fans would suddenly switch their allegiance to a London team simply because of its new location.

As discussed earlier many ardent English sporting fans, the kind that are required for long-term support and attendance at games (especially during the tougher times), do not take their commitment lightly or temporarily. Embedding history, legacy and heritage – steps to becoming a GREAT brand by travelling the ‘Celebrating Origins’ road – is not something that can be achieved overnight (Wembley wasn’t built in a day); and would always be facing the threat from one key question:

Is diehard support of an NFL team in the UK possible with the constant danger of your favourite team moving back to America, or even to elsewhere in Europe, at a moment’s notice?

The numbers certainly seem to suggest so at first glance – and that one glance might be enough for the NFL to plow ahead. Attendance figures and viewing stats only tell so much of the story however; and without an in-depth examination and exploration of fan culture in the UK any attempt at building a passionate fan base would be a complete shot in the dark. Only by researching and understanding the psychology of the fans they’re trying to win over will the NFL be able to ensure the enduring success of a UK team – and there’s still every chance of success being possible. In ten years’ time the London Royals (or Redcoats, Monarchs, Bulldogs or any other aggressively British name you can think of) might be lifting their first Super Bowl to the tune of 50,000 British fans singing “Rule, Britannia!” at the top of their lungs.

But I’ll still be a Saints fan.