london NFL2

When Roger Goodell says words about London and the possibility of placing a team there — as he did earlier this month — deciphering a hidden message between those words has become an instant ritual. His most recent words that resonated were “potential home city”, but they were then followed by “a lot would have to happen before that could take place”.

For now, that’s where we stand on the grand issue. But the interest in continuing to aggressively expand the game internationally is abundantly obvious. This year the league is playing two games in London during one season for the first time, the latest of which is the Jaguars-49ers game this Sunday at Wembley. Next year the gift of Americanized football will go overseas three times, another first, and today the teams were announced. London will be treated to Cowboys-Jaguars, Falcons-Lions, and Raiders-Dolphins.

If you think at least two of those games will be something less than a pristine example of NFL football, you might be right. But that mattered little when two 0-3 teams faced off in September, and a sellout crowd of over 83,500 watched an entertaining 34-27 Minnesota Vikings win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sure, many of those tickets were sold far in advance, but maybe that’s because quotes like this one from a random fan (said to The Associated Press) prior to the game are becoming commonplace:

“To be honest, I would go regardless of the teams playing. The chance to hang out and chat with so many like-minded NFL fans is one of my favorite parts of the day.”

Or are they?

It’s easy to make a surface-level attempt to quantify fan interest in London, and note that the last two games have drawn 167,522 fans. But are sports bars packed with frothing fans of a certain girth too? Was the groan heard here following Reggie Wayne’s season-ending injury this week echoed across the pond? Do they also attach “gate” to every instance of NFL controversy?

I can’t answer those questions, so I dusted off my reporter’s fedora and talked to Paolo Bandini, who’s more than qualified for this subject. While also covering the other football that I hear might be popular in London (those who aren’t biased with their football affiliation recognize Bandini from his other home on this very dot com), Bandini has followed the NFL for The Guardian, which has included running a weekly marathon live blog on Sundays.

I began with essentially this: how much do people really, truly care?

1. Let’s talk about the general buzz around the NFL in London. Excitement surrounding American football has clearly grown, which has been indicated by the demand for tickets. But is there a constant thirst for the game as there is here, and need for highlights, new information, injury updates, etc.?

This is a difficult question to answer. It seems like every time these games get played, beat reporters from the NFL teams traveling to London land in the UK on Tuesday morning and scoop up all the national newspapers, then write a column for back home about how nobody is talking about the NFL game. Which is true at a national newspaper level: there are only so many pages to go around (especially these days) and they need to keep their core readership happy by focusing on traditional sports (more than 50% of which is soccer). But bear in mind that people who actually buy newspapers are in themselves a very specific demographic. If you look on the websites of those national newspapers, they will all have some content on the upcoming game, and will ratchet it up through the week – which they would not do if people were not reading.

The truth is that your average punter in the UK probably does not care (in fact, some of them delight in protesting at the top of their lungs about “pussies in pads” or how “this is not football”) but what you do have is a core audience that is every bit as obsessed with the game as fans in North America. A lot of Americans don’t believe me when I say that, but then they get over to the UK and meet guys at these Wembley games who could tell you the names of backup guards on their team’s practice squad. There is a very real community of NFL fans in London, and it is unquestionably growing.

Exactly how big it is, though, remains tricky to quantify. Every year we hear from the NFL international office about how the UK TV broadcasts of live games have seen significant growth in viewing figures, but these numbers are always presented as a percentage, so it’s hard to know exactly where we stand (a 50% increase on nothing, after all, would still be nothing). I do know that Channel 4’s weekly TV highlights show is watched by 250,000 people –but even that is a bit of a meaningless number. The real fans know that if they want to they can go and get all the highlights for free at NFL.com – long before the Channel 4 show is broadcast.

I still think that the best evidence of a real growth in interest in the sport comes from the very rapid expansion in recent years of the national amateur leagues. I wrote a piece touching on some of this in 2011 – noting that the national university league (like almost every sport, it’s a club sport at university in the UK – no funding from the institutions themselves) had expanded from 42 teams to 67 in the space of four years. I haven’t checked the numbers, but I’d be surprised if it has not continued to grow since. When you get people playing the game, understanding the game, those are the guys who then wind up getting really into it and wanting to know every last thing that is happening with whichever team they decide to follow.

So yes, that is a very long-winded way of answering your question. The short version is that yes, that “constant demand” you reference absolutely does exist among the core audience. How big that is right now, I’m not 100% sure.

2. Further to that, I think often the best gauge of a sport’s popularity is how much it’s talked about in the offseason. How high is the interest in the draft, and free agency?

See above. The fans who care, still care. Not everyone who goes to the games at Wembley falls into this category, but a good chunk of them certainly do.

Again, in terms of national newspaper coverage of those things, it’s close to non-existent unless there is a British player involved. The picture, again, is a little different on those newspapers’ websites. Pretty much all of them, these days, would have at least a story up saying who went first overall, and on the Guardian we had a good amount of content around the draft, including a mock, a live blog and various reactions pieces, but our website is very much internationally-focused these days, with a large percentage of our readership coming from North America, so the picture becomes a bit less clear about who this is aimed at.

3. There’s constant discussion about an NFL team in London, which has been fueled even more by the Jaguars signing on to play a game at Wembley for the next four years. If a team moves eventually, do you get the feeling fans will abandon the team they’re already supporting?

Pretty much anybody you ask this question will say ‘no’. In general, British sports fans are very reluctant to ever change your teams. You are either born with a team, due to your parents’ affiliations, or you pick one – but once you have it, you are stuck with it for life (I’m talking about all sports here, rather than NFL teams in particular).

However, I would say two things. First of all, I think that there is a certain category of fan who might not abandon their own team, but would adopt the London franchise as their ‘second team’ – especially if they aren’t playing in the same division. Secondly, there are a number of new fans coming to the game every year at the moment. Most of those will not have a team to start with, so if it becomes clear that a certain team is going to move over, then that would be an obvious choice for them to support.

4. Does nearly every team have support, or is there a lean towards the Bucs, or other teams that have visited more frequently?  The Wall Street Journal did a rough count of jerseys in the crowd in September that weren’t Steelers or Vikings jerseys, and the final total was 477.

A lot of people’s allegiances date back to the 1980s, when the NFL had a real boom in the UK with games shown live for the first time on British TV. So teams who were prominent in that time period tend to have a strong following. Anecdotally, I would tell you that the 49ers, Dolphins and Raiders are all very popular – though I don’t have numbers to back any of that up. It probably ties up a little bit with places that Brits have tended to go on vacation as well (Florida and California …).

Younger fans adopted the Patriots during their Tom Brady heyday, and of course other traditionally successful teams like the Packers and Steelers tended to get more airtime, and therefore more following.

I don’t get the impression that the London games have had a huge impact on who gets supported just yet, but we haven’t had a consistent London “home” team until now with the Jaguars. And I’m not sure even the underdog-loving British public is going to climb on that particular bandwagon!

I can say pretty confidently that there will be a lot more people wearing 49ers jerseys than Jags ones this Sunday at Wembley, but what I would say is that the neutral fans in the crowd, which is typically the majority, tend to get onside with supporting the “home” team, whoever it may be.

5. Lastly, how high is the interest in fantasy football? Has that played a role in expanding the interest in the real game, as it has in North America?

I’m sure that Fantasy has helped to expand interest – though again I would find that hard to quantify. Sky Sports (a satellite channel which broadcasts a double-header in the best UK time slot – 1pm ET and 4.05/4.25 pm ET – every week) has a Fantasy game on their website which is popular enough, but again I would say that a lot of the hardcore fans are signed up to the same websites that US fans use – ESPN, NFL.com etc.

Certainly, anecdotally, I can say that I know a lot of guys in the UK who play. Both of the leagues I play in are with friends from there. I’m sure that Madden video games have also played a role, especially with younger fans.