Historically it’s been “America’s Game” – but for how much longer? American Football’s popularity is growing here in the UK year-on-year. It’s a sport I’ve grown up watching, with my family being based stateside for four years, but now it seems the overall demand for live games this side of the pond is stronger than ever, as proven by the average of £100 a head paid by the 83,436 strong crowd at the first of the three games held at Wembley last September.
Since London hosted the first ever competitive game outside the Americas, on a muddy Wembley pitch in 2007, there have been a total of ten regular season NFL games held in the UK, with a further three set to be played at Wembley this year. The initial one annual game held here was increased to three for 2014 and 2015 due to such high demand, with the Jacksonville Jaguars having committed to playing ‘home’ games at Wembley from 2013 through to 2016.
This week the NFL and Tottenham Hotspur announced a ten-year partnership with two games a year set to be played at the Premier League side’s new stadium when it is completed in the summer of 2018; another step in the right direction as the NFL continues its plans to have a team based in London by 2022. Before that’s possible, though, here are some of the hurdles they must overcome.
The first issue to address is the journey that teams will have to make to play here. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, who have appeared at the Super Bowl for the last two years, would have to cover close to 4,800 miles from their Washington base to get to Heathrow. Jetlag would certainly take its toll in consecutive game weeks. That said, there’s definitely logic behind the suggestion that teams could play a game on the east coast first, before heading over to the UK – a strategy that would cut down the distance travelled into more manageable legs.
2. Time away from family
Whilst we have witnessed a rise in UK-born players finding success at colleges in the US, before getting drafted into the NFL, the need to stay competitive would require a London franchise to draft American players, effectively forcing them into spending extended periods of time away from their families. Attracting the most established players to a UK team would surely require a financial incentive, which could impose a strain on the team’s salary cap – a budgeting issue no Premier League team has to consider, thanks to the bottomless pockets of Abramovich and co.
3. No guaranteed rest week
The bye week that teams have been afforded thus far after a London game, which has allowed significant recovery time before their next game, would not necessarily be possible now. With a London franchise in play, keeping the automatic bye-week in place over a full season would extend the length of the regular season, pushing back the playoffs and Super Bowl. Perhaps the best way of test running this would be to remove the bye weeks of teams playing at Wembley in 2016 (where there is set to be a new high of four games played) – which would then give the league a good idea of just how practical playing consecutive game weeks in London and then the US would be.
Whatever you think about the possibility of a London-based NFL team, you can’t help but take more notice of it. The game is gaining more admirers here every year, boasting a current fan base of 13 million in the UK. You can’t even attribute the sport’s popularity to London luring over the top teams, either; none of the six teams that played at Wembley last year made it to the playoffs. This hasn’t had any impact on filling stadiums whatsoever. As Boris Johnson put it, “Londoners are going absolutely gangbusters for Gridiron.”