Riding the Second Wave: The Ressurection of the NFL in the UK
As important as hosting competitive games at Wembley was for the NFL's rejuvenation in Britain, it owes its current success to two other crucial areas: universities, and a cult following.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
If you talk to any of the old guard of British NFL fans, they'll take you back to the eighties and the days of the American Forces Network (AFN) radio broadcasts. British NFL broadcasting veterans like Neil Reynolds and Nat Coombs gleefully recall getting into the sport with nights spent listening to AM radios.
"Our [TV] highlights were a week late," explains Reynolds, the most prominent British NFL journalist going, "so I listened to that. I'd have the headphones on trying desperately to hear the scores and the action while fading in and out of a Spanish opera singer and the Belgian football results."
Coombs, the ex-Channel 4 and Channel 5 host who now anchors coverage for the BBC, would agree. His childhood was spent following the sport – which he describes affectionately as "this amazing, technicolour, cartoon-like thing" – via the broadcasts.
"When I wasn't allowed to stay up for the Super Bowl I'd listen to it under the covers on this crackly AFN feed, which I think kind of adds to the magic, really. It certainly adds to the mystique of the thing."
This generation of fans were the first wave of British NFL supporters. They listened to the games live, watched the highlights the following week, and were eventually rewarded with exhibition matches. When William 'The Fridge' Perry ran out to the field for the Chicago Bears in the first American Bowl game at a rocking Wembley in 1986, it seemed like the sport had finally arrived.
Alongside the exhibition games, NFL Europe – which had many guises, with this being it's most recognised – was set up as a feeder league in 1991, and fully expanded in 1995. The best young coaches and players would be sent to cut their teeth, with the top teams duking it out for the World Bowl title.
American football had landed in the UK.
But things went downhill. Television coverage slipped. The American Bowl games left Wembley in 1993, never to return. The Scottish Claymores – the final British NFL Europe team – shut up shop in 2004, as the action almost exclusively moved to Germany. The game fell from the heights that the first wave of fans propelled it to. It may have looked like the end of the British experiment, but that was far from the case. NFL returned in 2007 with the first regular season game at Wembley, providing the sport with the final tool it needed to eclipse its former glory.
But, as important as hosting competitive games at Wembley was for American football's rejuvenation, it owes its current success to two other areas that are entirely out of the control of the marketing behemoth that is the NFL: universities, and a cult following.
As any wannabe dictator will tell you, revolution simply cannot happen without grassroots action. That is it true in sport, too. For American football, that movement came not from the NFL itself, but was home-grown at British universities.
"It is relatively organic because we're not the governing body for the sport," says Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of NFL UK and the man who has steered the game here since 2000, on the league's involvement with university ball.
"Our focus is on putting the sport out at the forefront.... And I actually think that's healthy, because you want it to be organic and you want it to come from the ground up rather than it be something done institutionally."
Looking just to control the NFL output rather than all gridiron in the UK certainly paid off. Left to its own devices, the university game began to break out thanks to a simple rule change.
Before the late 2000s, you could play for any university that had a team so long as you were a student. You were not bound to your own institution. In London, this meant most flocked to Greenwich University's side. It was here that Aaron Turner, one of the co-founders of the King's College Regents and an experienced junior player, got seriously involved in the game.
He played his first year at Greenwich in 2007. However, the British University American Football League (BUAFL) was looking to become associated with British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS), which governs most sport at universities. This lead to the introduction of the single institution rule, meaning players had to play for their own university.
Aaron retired from Greenwich and founded the Regents at his own university, King's. Although breaking up these communal teams sounds harsh, for Aaron and others like him it just spurred them on: "I think ending that single institution stuff forced people to say, 'if you really want to do this, you've got to go out there and start working hard about setting something up.'"
"We started getting some posters out," he recalls. "I also remember for Fresher's 2008, because we wouldn't get any sort of society status, we just stood outside the fayre with a football to see if anyone was interested in joining us in throwing a ball around. That's really where we started from. Our very first official practice in a park in 2008 had eight guys.
"Half of them were my mates anyway, who weren't that interested in playing!" Turner adds.
What began was a slow, uneasy growth that resembled that of many of the fledgling clubs at the time. By the end of 2008 the Regents had "12 or 13 dedicated people", and played their first game in February 2010. By October of that year, on the cusp of full BUAFL membership, they reached 24 players.
Even then the future of the team wasn't secured.
"It was so fragile at that point. The biggest thing for us all the way through until 2011 or 2012, every year, was not trying to grow but just making sure we had enough money and support to make sure we could fill the team next year. At the time, with the way the schedule works, you'd know you'd have four home games, so it was just about making sure we had enough money to pay for referees and an ambulance."
It's only since being granted full society status three years ago at King's that the Regents have had some security. Now they have a squad of 55, with another 60 turning up for taster days, and can fully concentrate their energies to work on the field.
For Turner, the journey has come full circle. Since his graduation in 2010 he's stayed involved with the Regents, as have his other co-founder, and he's now the team's head coach.
The Regents are far from the only team to win their battle for survival. American football is one of the biggest-growing sports in the UK. The British American Football Association (BAFA) found that student football was up 12.3% this year, while the men's contact game overall was up 18.8%. The women's game rose 80%, while youth flag football was up 90.6%. There are now 5,164 American football players in the UK, double that of the 2,460 who played the sport across all levels when the International Series started in 2007.
And this growth is vital, especially in universities.
"Yes, definitely, 100% I think that's the case," says long-time Sky broadcaster Reynolds on the NFL being boosted by a blossoming student game, "and while the International Series games allow people to maybe go and play university American football, there is no doubt that universities have created NFL fans going back the other way as well."
And it is Turner's generation, who splintered off en masse to set up their own teams, who've laid the bedrock for the second wave of NFL fans.
"I think a lot of people got into the game at [uni] age," says BBC man Coombs, "and a lot of people have stuck with it. So that's one of the reasons for the big spike in popularity over here for sure."
It's a happy coincidence for the NFL, who know that they need to target young Brits in order to cement future generations of fans.
"[University growth] has been critical on the basis of the kind of age group we're trying to target," explains Alistair Kirkwood. "From an attitudinal perspective, you want to go after teenagers and [people in their] early twenties because they do have more leisure time, they are willing to adopt new things, and they make decisions based on how things they adopt reflect on them as personalities.... Our growth will come from that age demographic."
It was this demographic that, 10 years ago, formed a cult and laid the other half of the foundation of the league's current British success.
Before Channel 5 dropped their late-night American sports coverage for Super Casino and other associated claptrap, it was a mecca for fans. It broadcast the full ship's compliment of American sports, highlighted by American football coverage.
The NFL show was established with beloved American pundit Mike Carlson working alongside Colin Murray. However, when Murray left for Radio 1, his role was taken up by a young broadcaster transitioning into sports from comedy. That man was Nat Coombs. As good as the coverage was with Murray – something Coombs is always eager to highlight – there was something special about the show when he and Carlson hooked up.
"One thing that was clear, even though I wasn't very good [during my first year], was that Carlson and I just clicked in this slightly odd-couple way," Coombs says.
The endearingly awkward Coombs and mischievous Carlson – enough years Nat's senior that he read the elder statesman growing up in First Down magazine, a fact he likes to remind his friend of—did indeed make a great team. The show transformed into equal parts NFL coverage, background stories from Carlson, and comedy as the pair brought the best out of each other.
"What an amazing gig," says Coombs, "to be able to talk about this brilliant sport, but also spend three minutes talking about The Wire if you want to?"
With the freedom that late night television provided, they struck gold.
Their chemistry, along with a big community watching at home and interacting on social media, fostered a real sense of camaraderie with the show. They dominated late night television, and moved together when the show switched back to its ancestral home on Channel 4. It was the fostering of this group mentality and identity, though, which drew so many in – especially among the student scene emerging alongside them – and is their lasting legacy.
"I know that the old C4 stuff with Mike and Nat had a really good student following," notes Reynolds on the alternative late night coverage, "and a part of that is a kind of cult following; they're on in the middle of the night as well, and again it goes back to it sort of feeling like a special club, [the] shared experience of staying up together and watching the games.
"We were very much aware that there was this cult thing going on," Nat says, as humble as he comes over on the telly, "but we didn't overthink it."
The late night games on terrestrial television may have ended, but their effects still endure. The show's ethos still seems to be on Neil Reynolds' mind when he broadcasts.
"I think there's always room for us to engender that feeling as well on the Sunday night on Sky," he says. "We're all sitting down and watching something that we love, lets enjoy it together."
Reynolds may want to enjoy watching his beloved sport with his viewers, but he also rightly knows that the days of the cult following need to come to an end.
"I think what's happening now in the NFL in the UK, it's about being inclusive, being able to spread this as far and wide as we can," Reynolds says. "I'm not sure that was always the case.... people almost started to revel in it being their little secret, and I don't think anyone wants to have that anymore."
The game is certainly spreading, with it now approved to be played in British schools. This will only serve to further normalise it to a more youthful British crowd, something Neil Reynolds is keen to keep on seeing.
"It's not all guys my age who were interested in the sport in the eighties," he says, "it's a young fan base and they're playing the game, and if they're not they're just enjoying it as fans and I think that's really great to see how that's developed."
For now, though, the generation of fans who flocked to the game 10 years ago are driving the sport. And, this time around, it seems that American football is finally set up to keep them engaged.
"I do think the obvious difference between the first spike in popularity back when I was a kid and now has been continuity," Coombs observes. "Continuity of exposure, although I understand that it is a difficult point right now because the terrestrial coverage is somewhat limited with the live games."
The lack of regular live coverage on free TV is perhaps the game's last remaining worry. At least this time around there are the highlights shows – one of which, to NFL UK director Alistair Kirkwood's pride, follows Match of the Day – along with numerous podcasts and, for those who can afford it, the Game Pass on-demand service. The league is also keen on new media, being a major user of SnapChat and broadcasting Thursday games on Twitter.
"I've got a radio show on TalkSport," says Nat, "and I don't think that would have been considered 10 years ago; a show dedicated to the NFL."
However, as much as they're riding the wave born out of great and the grassroots university game, the impact of the International Series cannot be understated.
"The big difference is it's the A-game," says Coombs. "NFL Europe was great, but it was reserves. Exhibitions were great, but they were friendlies. The International Series is the A-game; you're going to see the best of the best, three times a season if you want. And every season.
"All of those factors have definitely helped people stay with the game, rather than watching it when they were students and then not watching it for 10 years," he adds.
The NFL is working to bridge that gap to stop the drop off repeating itself. Neil Reynolds talks of taking his fan forums on the road, potentially into universities. Alistair Kirkwood also willingly concedes that the NFL could do more at the lower levels, although he is happy to note that it is looking to do so.
"Maybe we have not necessarily spent enough time focussing on working at a more grassroots levels. Those are things we've started to change in the last year, but I think there are still some ways to go," he says.
For now, the sport is looking healthier than ever in the UK, and for Kirkwood the future is exciting. Hopefully it will repay the grassroots scene which has propelled the it to new heights.
"We're on a journey, and it's not necessarily clear to define what that journey is, but if we end up having a London franchise that plays within the U.S. league then the university programme will adapt and grow based on those opportunities.... I think there's loads of interesting discussions in the next five or 10 years as to what that will involve.
"The work that volunteers and enthusiasts have done to build up to this stage has been vitally important, but I actually think the potential and future upside is great."
In 10 years, then, from a sport struggling to find a foothold in an alien country to three games, and talk of not just a franchise but also routes for British players into it. American football has come a long way. And to think, the organic, grassroots spark that accompanied the International Series came from students trying to find people to play the game with and a band of late-night fans watching a cult TV broadcast.