I’m in a sports bar in central London with a half full pint. Fifteen or so new best friends surround me and I’m comfortable.
Maybe it’s that I’ve spent the night before at a pub in South London, being serenaded by rowdy football fans. It’s not that I didn’t feel comfortable with chants of “We are Millwall” thundering around me. But here, with around twenty of us packed into the back room of this pub on Rupert Street, watching a television showing the broadcast of the semi-finals of the National Football League, I feel at home.
The National Football League is the most watched sport in America. The first playoffs for this year’s NFL Championships drew almost 35 million TV viewers. For comparison, Sky averages around 1.1 million for each broadcast of an English Premier League Game in the UK. In a non-World Cup year, the only sporting event that gets more viewers than the US Super Bowl is the Champions League Final, a game that isn’t bound by borders or tribal sentiment.
But the idea of a fully funded NFL team American football team in London seems to put my new friend off. Last month, the commissioner of the National Football League, said he’d support putting a team in London, which would be the only NFL team playing outside American borders.
“There is absolutely no way,” he says, waving his hand across his face emphatically from side to side.
It’s not as if American football hasn’t had success in Europe. During NFL Europe’s 16-year existence, the league had a team in London, which averaged around 40,000 fans per game before folding in 1999.
There are also a number of junior and youth teams, all with over 50 players, strapping on the shoulder pads and helmets, running, throwing, tackling each week around the United Kingdom, including two teams that are based within the city limits.
Popularity wouldn’t be an issue. Two NFL games played in Wembley this past year scored over 80,000 in attendance per game.
Logistical problems could also be ironed out: you’ve got to play 16 games in 17 weeks and traveling from the East Coast to London or vice versa only produces a time difference of 5-hours. And, with three different time slots for games to be played on Sunday’s (eastern standard time 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 8:00 pm) there’s enough flexibility to figure it out.
The problem, Rob says, is attracting American players to a foreign country, moving their families across the world, and choosing to play second fiddle to English Premier League players who rule the back pages and Sky Sports broadcasts, when they’d be centre stage back in the States.
After all, Rob says, David Beckham’s sporting career seemed to disappear into anonymity when he moved to Los Angeles in 2007. He was still on Page Three, but it’s not like the L.A. Times were running with stories about his success on the pitch. No one seemed to care.
And that’s the problem. Will Londoners care about a foreign sport being played inside the city? Or will it be considered an invasion, an attempt to push yet another American brand on a London audience thinking that the same language means the same culture? Two games a year work, sure, but would eight? Or would the novelty wear off and people return their attention to games with a rounder ball?
After two rounds of “No one likes us, we don’t care” on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but desperately pray that the next song to come on the jukebox would be something more transatlantic, something that would better allow me to blend in.