Every year during the run of International Series games talk of a future London franchise rears its head. Whilst there’s many logistical issues surrounding it’s viability, the popularity of the game to support a franchise in London through good and bad times is often taken for granted. We’re often given platitudes from the official NFL channels such as ‘the fastest growing sport in the UK’ which has been used for the last 10 years, ‘the game is more popular than it’s ever been’, or figures that just seem to defy belief (and reality) in press releases such as the latest one ’14 million UK fans, 4 million avid ones’.
But just how popular is American football in the United Kingdom really? And how can it be measured, particularly when so much of the noise and tub-thumping is generated from the PR and marketing departments of the league office?
One thing is without question. American football, or more specifically the NFL (a difference we’ll debate in subsequent articles) hasn’t been as popular as it is today for 25 years. Interest in the NFL is currently experiencing a second boom with many fans from the 1980’s returning to follow the sport and children of the 1990’s and 2000’s who hadn’t experienced the exposure the game was given in the eighties now discovering the sport and developing a taste for it. Those fans from the 1980s are now also having their own children and likely breeding a new generation of fans as well, replacing the post war generation who were probably the least likely to follow the sport.
But is interest in the game continuing to evolve every year as the league and their media friends perpetuate or is there a natural ceiling that will or has been reached? And how can these things really be measured? For example one of the big stories in the NFL this season is the double digit fall in U.S. viewership across all networks (the most extreme so far being week 6 Sunday Night Football on NBC which was down 38%!). However the number of people ‘consuming’ some NFL coverage has actually slightly grown, people it seems are just spending less time with it in traditional ways. The NFL also mentioned that some polling they conducted showed more people had a ‘favourable view’ of the NFL this year than last. What does that even mean? And is it just PR doublespeak?
There was no question about the popularity of American football and the NFL in 1980’s Britain. The new, edgy, counter-culture embracing TV network Channel 4 had begun life in 1982 and one of its first offerings was American sports, notably on Sunday evenings in autumn an hour long NFL highlights show. Having only previously been exposed on British television on ITV’s World of Sport, and only then highlights of the odd Super Bowl, American football captured the imagination of a wave viewers, particularly younger adults and children. (Whilst televised snooker and darts experienced their own explosions in popularity during the decade, that was a more middle-aged and older audience.) By the mid 1980’s the Sunday evening NFL highlights show was pulling in over 4 million viewers.
But it wasn’t just the numbers of people watching the Nicky Horne fronted shows that showcased the boom in interest. Big NFL names would appear on shows such as Walter Payton on Question of Sport, Dan Marino on Wogan (the popular three times a week 7pm talkshow on BBC1), William Perry also appeared on there as did, incredibly in hindsight, Jim Everett & LA Rams owner Georgie Frontiere!
But it wasn’t just television embracing American football. Ask any man aged 35 to 45 today and chances are that, whether they ever liked the sport or not, they owned some type of NFL licensed merchandise or clothing as a child or teenager. The game’s licensing was lightyears ahead of anything seen from a British sport and all the main high street shops of the day (Marks and Spencer, British Home Stores and C&A) had their own NFL children’s range. Weekly American football magazines were launched, the original Gridiron followed by First Down which ran until 2007. Super Bowl programmes were available in John Menzies and WH Smiths. The Daily Express and Daily Mirror would have annual NFL pull-out sections. And the domestic game took off from literally nothing in 1982 to 150 teams playing every week across the country within the space of four years. Games would see hundreds or thousands attending, a far cry from even today’s relatively buoyant grassroots scene.
By January 1986 it was reported that 12 (twelve) million people tuned into Super Bowl XX watching the brilliant and characteristic Chicago Bears trounce the New England Patriots. There had been no English football (soccer) at all on television in the autumn of 1985 as the football clubs banned TV cameras from the grounds and it appeared the NFL had cashed in and driven its popularity even higher. In August of 1986 the Bears would play the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural Wembley Bowl in front of 90,000 fans braving the summer drizzle.
In the pre-Internet, pre-satellite era fans would listen for hours on a Sunday night to American Armed Forces Radio 873AM for live game commentary interspersed with Spanish opera. Teletext was the first port of call on a Monday morning to check or ‘reveal’ all of the previous day’s scores. The concept of spending your whole Sunday evenings watching something like Red Zone in the UK was inconceivable.
The NFL stayed popular for the rest of the 1980’s as did the domestic game, by now some of the leagues were even sponsored by Budweiser. Frank Gifford fronted the highlights show for a year, The Vicious Boys took over to much disdain in 1987 (even today the powers that be controlling the presentation can’t resist dumbing down sometimes – see Jim White) before ex Atlanta Falcon kicker and Brit Mick Luckhurst took the reigns.
In June of 1990 the Daily Telegraph ran a poll of 15-24 year olds and found that American football (39%) was more popular among that age group than football/soccer (32%). If anything knocks a hole in today’s ‘the game has never been as popular as now’ rhetoric then maybe it’s this statistic. The growth of the interest had been played out against a backdrop of a decaying, violent and unglamorous home grown sport. Both the tactics of the day and safety surrounding the game turned many young fans away from football to which the shiny, razzmatazz of the NFL took full advantage. But less than a month after that Telegraph poll took place the wheels, or more accurately tears were set in motion for football to recapture the hearts of the nation.
England’s (and Gazza’s) performance at Italia ’90 combined with the advert of the Premier League a couple of years later, plus the Taylor Report calling for safer amenities for supporters, drew back the fans who had lost interest in the game and football’s gain was the NFL’s loss. Americana of the eighties was no longer the fashion and almost as quickly as the game had exploded onto the UK mainstream scene, the NFL nearly disappeared without trace. From showing the occasional live playoff game at the start of the decade and then moving the highlights to a Saturday morning, by the late 1990’s Channel 4 had dropped the sport completely. The domestic game followed a similar path as the number of teams playing reduced to as low as 40, with older players retiring and the number of new players coming into the sport drying up.
When the NFL started it’s weekly broadcasts in 1982 it was to a much more captive audience than today’s. This was an era when World of Sport British Wresting would pull in 15+ million a week and on Sunday evenings the entertainment choice was not a lot more than Songs of Praise or NFL highlights. By the time interest began to fall away not only was football resurgent in Britain but other things were now competing for viewers attention. The huge rise of video games for one thing, the advent of satellite television and therefore many more channels to choose from, another.
Without doubt American football reached the conscience of the mainstream in the 1980’s like it never had before or since, despite the second wave of interest. The question is whether, with the fragmentation of today’s mainstream culture, it ever can become as widely popular again as it was then?
In the next article we’ll look at how the UK TV coverage recovered and whether the ratings over the course of the last 10 years indicates continued interest in the game.
Photograph Copyright: Summer Bowl 1 at Villa Park courtesy of britballnow.co.uk