Is There A UK Future for American Football?

The NFL is hugely popular in Britain but the domestic game struggles to raise its profile, as Tom Cann reports, speaking to key figures at a Surrey side.

The NFL is a growing sport in the UK, with the Superbowl raking in over 110 million viewers every year around the world. Here in the UK, both Wembley and Twickenham now host NFL games, for British spectators to go and see certain matches that are picked to take place in the capital. In 2015, Jacksonville Jaguars played the Buffalo Bills, two of the more standard teams in the NFL, at Wembley in front of 84,000 people.

So why hasn’t this interest in the NFL spread across to British American Football? Interest seems to be high in terms of people wanting to play for teams, but people still aren’t paying attention to the results or going to the games.

Surrey-based team Farnham Knights, are one team that are noticing this poor interest in the sport.

Farnham Knights were the first British American Football team in 20 years to go and play a game in America back in 2006, playing a semi-professional all-star team. Despite this, the problem is that many people didn’t even know that there is an American Football team based in Farnham, as there is not enough coverage of it, and not enough people interested.

“As much advertising as we can get is good, because people still don’t know there is a team near them” were the words from General manager at the Knights David Ferebee about an issue they have.

Britbowl

The problems that teams such as Knights face, is that there is not enough media coverage of the British game.

No television companies in Britain broadcast the Britbowl. Sky, who have the rights to the NFL, don’t show any live games on British American Football, and BBC, who have the rights to the SuperBowl and the sister show to the NFL, don’t show games either. This means that people who want to see the sport, or the final, can’t easily switch on the TV to watch it, and would need to travel to the game. If there were games broadcasted on TV, more people would tune in, which would subsequently raise the profile of the sport.

The same can be said with radio. No major radio station in the UK, even ones that specialise in sport such as 5live or TalkSport, covered this game. The only broadcaster that did have a stream of the game, both on TV and Radio, was a website called Double Coverage, a site dedicated to British American Football, who broadcasted the 2015 final between the two London teams. The company decided to cover it on a live stream that people could get through Wi-Fi, online, and through the website and radio streaming app Mixlr, so people could listen to the game if they couldn’t watch the live stream.

Editor of Double Coverage Nick Wilson-Town told Sport in Surrey that DC was originally set up because there was not enough coverage of the British game, with there only being around 30,000 Britball fans, which is 54,000 people less than those attended an NFL game at Wembley. “The sport is in a PR crisis, where both the teams themselves and the governing body simply lack the skills to grow the audience for the game.

“Funding is something of an issue, but in general there’s also I think a lack of awareness within our sport of the need to actively reach out to the wider British supporting community to grow the game’s audience, which in turn will lead to the growth of the game itself.”

Capital

It’s not as easy for people to go and see either, in the fact that the BritBowl is played in different stadiums each year. The two London-based teams, Warriors and Blitz, are the two clubs that are normally in the final, having been in the final for the last six years, but the title match tends to be played outside of the capital, with the 2016 final taking place in Worcester, and previous year’s being in Doncaster and Leeds, making it harder for people to go and see the match due to the distance they must have to travel.

If the British American Football Association (BAFA) could get permission to play in one of the main stadiums in London, such as Twickenham or even Wembley, then more people may want to go so that they wouldn’t have to travel far to see the game. This could raise the profile of American Football in Britain, as the stadium capacity is much bigger than what they are currently playing in.

Wilson-Town from Double Coverage also said “Primarily, the reason people aren’t interested is that many don’t even realise it exists. Walk down the street and ask people and nine out of 10 will tell you they didn’t know it was played here, or it was played in their city, or it was something that they could play. We don’t talk about it, we don’t put it out there, and ultimately on the rare occasions that we do? It’s rarely a good enough ‘product’ to actually garner any interest.”

Getting more players to play the game isn’t an issue for teams however, with many people wanting to take part in the quick, intense game in Britain.

Ferebee told Sport in Surrey that he now gets “three to four emails a week” from people asking whether they can go and play for Farnham Knights. This does raise an issue however, which is that teams in Britain are not allowed to pay their players, as they are all amateur teams. The players themselves need to pay to be part of the team, for various things such as kits, safety gear and playing fees.

Rookie day

The majority of the players that play for the Knights, got into American Football through watching and enjoying the NFL, when it ‘invaded’ Britain. Knights’ Offensive line, right guard John Healy said “I started watching the international series that came over, and really got into it, and I wondered whether there was a local team that I could get involved with, and there was a rookie day in November, and just decided to try out and see if I’m any good at it.”

The head coach however, ‘Tango’ Lockwood, got into the sport a different way. “It happened by complete accident, I was banned from ring sports, and I went to play some football, and loved it.”

Females are getting more chances to play American Football in Britain as well, with defensive line left tackle player Laura Hill being the first female to play in the top division of Britain’s American Football for Farnham Knights. She is one of three women to now play in the top division, with others playing further down the ‘gridiron’ pyramid.

Not only can women par-take in the adult league with men, but women’s American Football is also one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the UK over the last three years, due to the rise in popularity of the NFL in the UK.

Schools have now also been granted permission to play flag in school, which is the non-contact version of the sport. This is also a positive, because if students at school enjoy playing flag American Football, they may be interested in starting to play normal American Football when they are older, or even be interested to go and see the games, raising the profile and the amount of people going to see gridiron in Britain.

Primary goal’

In the vision section on BAFA’s ‘sport in the 21st century’ pdf, BAFA outline many visions, one reading ‘The priority for the British American Football Association is to grow participation and membership.’

BAFA are trying to do something to raise the amount of people who go and see games however, by putting the postcode of where the teams will play their home games on their official fixtures Excel spreadsheet, so people can see where the games are going to be played, as well as when.

Double Coverage are also trying to do something about the amount of Britball fans, with Wilson-Town saying “My primary goal with DC at present is to get ourselves in a position where we can sustainably promote British American Football to a wider audience. We want to educate, to inform, to bring the community together in one place, share all the wonderful things we’re doing, and thereby reach out to grow the community.”

Farnham Knights’ campaign to be the best team in Britain kicks-off on the 23rd April 2017, with their first match being away to the Bristol Aztecs. Knights’ first home game is against London Blitz on 21st May.

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