Bienvenue to Europe, American Football
Last October, my parents visited Seattle from Ireland, a trip that overlapped with an outstanding game between the Seahawks and LA Rams. Despite having watched almost no football in his life, my Dad was completely absorbed. In the fourth quarter, he asked me out of the blue, which NFL team John Riggins had played for. I nearly coughed up my beer. “How do you know who John Riggins is?”, I asked in disbelief. My parents proceeded to tell how they used to be well acquainted with Riggo. As a child in the 1980s, I would jump over the sand pit in my back garden with a ball tucked under my arm, imagining I was the legendary Washington Redskins running back rushing for glory. “Rumors of my craziness are greatly exaggerated,” to use a line from the Hall of Fame speech John Riggins delivered.
How Europe got hooked How a boy in Ireland grew devoted to American Football is not an unusual story. If you were to concentrate on Western Europe, especially the U.K. and Ireland, in the 1980s and 90s you were to find a steady cross-section who followed the NFL. Free-to-air station Channel 4 first brought the NFL to British and Irish TV back in 1982. Losing the NFL in 1994 to pay-per-view Sky Sports was a considerable blow to many fans, who like me, had grown up with the game. With no internet or regular access to TV highlights, we turned to other sports. While America’s relationship with football and its grip on the nation has always fascinated me, I’ve equally been interested in why so many people in Europe and elsewhere are drawn to the game. Football’s critics often dismiss it as the most American of games. Up to a point, yes it is. The NFL’s expansive approach involves targeting the European market. It has long been acknowledged that the UK and Ireland really has two groups of NFL fans: those who got to know the game in the ’80s, and the fans who have discovered it since 2010. When I coached rugby in Ireland, a portion of the players followed the NFL and came from that 2010 second wave. Following training a few days after New England inched past Seattle in the epic Super Bowl in 2015, I went to a Super Bowl party in the city. It was like being at a United Nations gathering, with everyone in a different NFL jersey. And one victorious Patriot. I was proud of them. The Underground Network Being an NFL fan in Europe at times feels like being part of an underground network. When someone you meet starts talking about ‘the nickel package’ and ‘The Manning brothers’ you realize you have a duty to befriend that person. European supporters are knowledgeable and often treat football like an academic subject. Passion for the game has spread across the world, a point not lost on the NFL. The league determined that the number of football fans in the U.K. rose +25% to 4 million in 2018. German fan growth was also up. Chris Halpin, NFL Chief Strategy and Growth Officer, said Brazil and Mexico had become strong consumption markets for the league. But, success didn’t come easy. It was only after learning from a serious financial and organizational debacle that they figured out the best strategy for Europe. The NFL’s league in Europe ran from 1991 to 2007 with limited success and it folded after sustaining heavy financial losses. The European fan base had been accustomed to watching quality NFL games on television, then all of a sudden it was presented with an underwhelming league in its backyard. The teams - including the London Monarchs and Frankfurt Galaxy - were composed almost entirely of players that Americans had never heard of, let alone bewildered Scottish and German audiences. There were some exceptions. One minute Kurt Warner was stacking grocery shelves in an effort to find a path into the NFL. The league in Europe presented him with a chance, before his fairy tale ride culminated in leading the St Louis Rams to a Super Bowl in 1999.
A Mutual Partnership
Historically, writers and fans have deemed football too broken up for fans of free flowing soccer and rugby in Europe. That perception still counts, but today it is under assault. I’ve noticed that a number of my European friends who are interested in football have become tired with English premiership soccer or professional rugby, and are looking for a fresh start. Staying up late on Sunday night is a badge of honor when work is only six hours away. Since learning the lessons of shutting its European league, the NFL's international strategy shifted to playing regular season games in London and Mexico City. It is an approach that has yielded a lot of success. Games in Wembley Stadium and at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium sell out well in advance. A kaleidoscope of fans attend. The relationship is renewed between the NFL and its overseas base. America’s game is set to capture the world's attention for a long time. But to really broaden its appeal outside of the U.S., can the NFL deliver a franchise in Europe that sticks?