How has the NFL‘s efforts to expand the game outside of the U.S. worked? Justin Twell explains their impacts on NFL fans in both the United Kingdom and Australia, as well as highlights how fans in those countries enjoy the game.
The NFL is more popular now than ever. We can watch and follow on TV, social media, apps, and the web in general. They call it ‘’America’s game’’ but just how was it being a fan of the game starting from a young age outside of the United States, and what is it like right now?
The American Bowl and The World League/NFL Europe
Learning about a game that was a complete unknown in my home country of England, a country whose national sport is football (or soccer as it is commonly known in the US), was actually exciting as an 8 year old, circa 1986. The NFL was bringing the game to London for the very first time in what was the start of a series of exhibition games called the “American Bowl” played between 1986 and 2005. These games would coincide with the NFL pre-season, with games scheduled to be played in early-to-middle of August. For English fans, this was an opportunity to get a glimpse of the starters for each team in very much the same way pre-season ticket holders do today.
The NFL, at the time, was looking to promote the game in other countries, and after the success of the first three games (Bears vs Cowboys, Rams vs Broncos, and Dolphins vs 49ers), the league expanded the American Bowl to countries throughout the world such as Japan, Germany, Canada, Mexico, and Australia.
The first American Bowl was in London, at the iconic Wembley Stadium, where the Chicago Bears, fresh off of their Super Bowl XX victory, defeated the Dallas Cowboys 17-6 on August 3, 1986. Afterwards, I would experience my very first taste of American football action as I travelled to Wembley on August 9, 1987 to watch the Los Angeles Rams take on the Denver Broncos to see eventual Hall of Famers John Elway and Eric Dickerson play, albeit briefly.
As more games followed – I would go on to watch the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Cleveland Browns in 1989 and the New Orleans Saints take on the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 – I began to notice that a small following of NFL fans had made themselves known off the success of the now yearly American Bowl games at Wembley Stadium. Fans of teams such as the Bears, Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, and 49ers could be spotted just about anywhere in London and beyond.
As its popularity began to rise, the NFL was shown on Channel 4 throughout the UK, which was one of the four major TV channels that operated in the UK at the time. College football soon found its way onto TV, only with games starting at three or four o’clock in the morning.
Growing up and watching this game played with a rugby-like ball naturally brought out the “It’s just rugby in pads’’ narratives from those who simply didn’t, couldn’t, or just wouldn’t understand how the game of American football is played. American football was still growing and it hadn’t reached the popularity of sports such as soccer, cricket, and rugby, but my friends and I would play ‘’touch football’’ in our school field in the early-to-mid 1990’s. This started after we began to play the earlier Madden video games and some of my friends would go on to follow teams such as the Packers, Dolphins, and Cowboys. Those choices were because they liked playing as those teams in Madden or because they had watched a game on TV and picked a team based off a favorite player for that team, or simply because they liked the colors the team played in.
Around the same time (1991) we were introduced to The World League of American Football (later renamed NFL Europe and then NFL Europa), with teams competing from both the US and Europe. This proved to be quite successful in Europe and gave fans the chance to watch players who were looking to impress NFL teams.
Sadly the league closed in 2007, but it had already brought a whole generation of new fans to the game as a whole.
The NFL now plays the International Series which is currently held at Wembley Stadium in London annually. The upcoming 2016 season will feature three London-based games. The International Series has proven to be a huge success with old and new fans alike, and attendances have been well over 80,000 people. Each of those people experienced the full NFL game day including cheerleaders and tailgating – as a result there is continued talk of a possible London-based NFL franchise within the next 5 years.
Thinking back now to when I was young, I enjoyed being a fan of the NFL when there wasn’t any real feeling of being different or alienated because I happened to love a game that most saw as being ‘’boring’’ or ‘’too slow’’. Yes, American football was growing, but many still had their doubts, in particular about the ‘’stop-start’’ nature of the game.
The Madden video game franchise has also helped grow the game’s popularity. In particular, earlier iterations of the franchise felt more ‘’pick up and play,’’ which would make it easier for people new to American Football to learn the game and have fun while doing it. You will find a large part of the overseas NFL and College fan-base learned the game simply by playing Madden in the 1990’s, 2000’s, and even today.
Fast forward to today and being an NFL fan living in Australia has only gotten better. Social media is a huge reason behind this and has helped bring fans together from all over the world. In fact, if it weren’t for social media and in particular using Twitter to connect with other writers and fans, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this article.
The Jarryd Hayne effect
In the past year the NFL has seen a significant spike in popularity here in Australia, and Jarryd Hayne can be given credit for that increase. The former Rugby League, Parramatta Eels star and two-time Dally M Medal winner (awarded to the best player in the National Rugby League in Australia), had a dream of playing in the NFL and chased that dream to play for the San Francisco 49ers last season. It was reported last season that game pass subscriptions had risen by 43 percent in Australia on the back of Hayne’s successful pre-season performances for the San Francisco 49ers.
Now that Jarryd Hayne has retired from the NFL and has gone on to try his hand at Fiji’s Rugby Sevens at the upcoming Rio Olympic games, it will be interesting to see how many of the new fans that came on board to watch him will stick around. I expect a drop-off in interest, particularly the media coverage here. I also expect we will hear of some in years to come who will share their stories of how Jarryd Hayne got them watching the NFL.
Fans might stick around for defensive tackle and Melbourne, Australia local, Adam Gotsis who was the Denver Broncos second-round pick in this year’s draft out of Georgia Tech. It remains to be seen if Gotsis can generate the same buzz as Hayne did; unfortunately, Gotsis is not as popular or well known.
One barometer of popularity is the Super Bowl, which is always a great experience down under. The majority of pubs and bars will show the game and attendances are generally very good as fans can be seen having a beer and enjoying the game while wearing their favorite teams jersey. Most of which recently have been wearing New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks jerseys, with new NFL fans quick to follow teams with recent success.
The NFL and college football’s popularity here should continue to grow as we’ll see the 2016 college season begin in Australia. The University of California and University of Hawaii will travel to Sydney to face-off on August 27, after the New South Wales government had been in negotiations to host the game for almost 12 months prior to its announcement. This is great news for the fans down here and we’ll continue to love and support the game as Australian fans do. If only the NFL could now bring a game here. Even the Pro Bowl? Yes, please.