LONDON – On most days, the big football match of the weekend in the United Kingdom pits one of the top teams of the Premier League against another. Pubs across the country are regularly packed with Arsenal or Chelsea or Manchester United fans cheering on their teams. For as long as anyone could remember, there has been but one football in the U.K.
But the NFL is trying to change that by adding another “football” to the vocabulary of the British.
For 10 years now, the NFL has played at least one regular season game in London. This year England’s capital will host three games -- and four games next year.
Since becoming commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has pushed the NFL to expand internationally, and it is no secret he and many owners want to add a permanent team in London.
At first, the NFL games were a novelty, something to be seen at and to see others at. The games were largely corporate events, packed with London’s international bankers and expat Americans. But the NFL has carefully grown the game in the U.K. London’s growing enthusiasm for the NFL is key to that prospect.
“Its not just the game. It is the tailgate. It is the whole event,” said Adam Simpson, from Yorkshire.
Outside of London’s Wembley Stadium eager fans learn the basics of the NFL game through a variety of interactive exhibits and drink Budweiser.
The NFL’s TV ratings pale in comparison to the British Premier League Football but many fans say the experience of a NFL game is much more fan friendly.
“It’s safer and there is not the segregation and violence between opposing fans that plague many British football matches,” said Brian Perkins, who has been following the NFL since the 1980s.
American football is growing and it appears it has taken root among some of Britain’s soccer-obsessed sports fans.
Last weekend, more than 74,000 people packed London’s sold out Twickenham Stadium. Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals was also sold out. Since the NFL started the International series, league officials said the games have more often than not been sell outs or near sell outs.
Interest in the NFL has been slowly building for years and some of it has occurred outside the influence of the NFL.
“My interest in football started with playing the Madden video games and then fantasy football,” David Stubbs said. Now Stubbs is a regular at every game no mater who is playing and would be “right behind” a hypothetical London team.
Many Brits support two NFL teams: the Jacksonville Jaguars who have played a game in London each of the last four years, and one of the NFL’s other 31 teams. Team allegiances, however, are often chosen in fairly random ways.
“I look good in green, so I am an Eagles fan,” said Laura Kitching, who travels more than 250 miles to London for each NFL game.
Georgia Bowers said his father was an Elvis Presley fan and always wanted go to Graceland in Tennessee -- so Bowers is now a proud Tennessee Titans fan.
However, putting a team in London would not only be a logistical challenge – the flight between a London team and the San Diego Chargers would be more than 11 hours – but also a financial challenge. Prime time TV ratings for the NFL are down more than 15% and uncertainty about TV ratings has league officials and their network partners concerned about the domestic U.S. market.
Still, the NFL is looking long term and has already had more success in the U.K. than many observers ever expected.