This Sunday, American Football returns to Wembley Stadium in London for a third and final time this season, amidst a flurry of hype and publicity, as the so-called “America’s team” Dallas Cowboys ride into town to face Florida’s underperforming Jacksonville Jaguars.
So what do you think about when I say American Football to you? Hot dogs, cheerleaders and beer? A stop-start game which essentially is all about TV advertising? Superbowl half-time shows and malfunctioning wardrobes? All of this could indeed be true of course, but another sell out crowd at Wembley would also argue it is not only one of the physically toughest sports going, but also right up there with chess, in terms of the levels of strategy and tactics involved.
So why has a 3rd game in just 5 weeks been able to sell out the 85,000 capacity Wembley stadium? (And not just sell it out by the way, tickets for all 3 events sold out months ago.) This all-American game is on the rise in the UK and on the rise fast. Who would have thought that the national team of our national game (you know, the one with the round football), would only attract 40,000 to a friendly against Norway and 55,000 for the potential goals-fest qualifying game against whipping boys San Marino this autumn? A paltry 95,000 supporters versus the 250,000 who have attended the American version? Crazy.
The strange thing about the NFL games being so popular, is that we’re not necessarily talking about big teams. I went a fortnight ago for the Atlanta Falcons vs the Detroit Lions fixture, which is kind of the NFL’s equivalent of Leicester City vs Middlesbrough. Can you imagine that fixture selling out LA Galaxy’s 95,000 capacity Pasedena Rose Bowl? No chance. Does it matter that the game being played in the UK, has American cultural roots? I’d like to interview some Falcons and Lions fans back in the States and get their views on their team playing abroad. Cultural authenticity is being tested here surely.
What is it then? Why is this game in such growth in this country? There’s no doubt that an increased marketing campaign from the NFL to these shores has been a response to the game reaching its commercial capacity in the States. Plus extra coverage on TV in the UK means you can now watch live games on Channel 4, Channel 5, Eurosport as well as Sky. But for me, there is something more meaningful, an underlying cultural embrace of this game which is so easily dismissed on first viewing, but actually is complex, exciting, dramatic and above all entertaining.
Take pre-game for instance. Fans arrive at the stadium 3 to 4 hours before kick off. Inflatables, competitions, games and entertainment takes over Wembley’s car parks for the Tailgate, an American tradition which originated in drinking beer from the back of your pick-up truck. A far more family orientated approach now exists, with most of the entertainment aimed at children. On the pitch alongside cheerleaders, mascots, acrobats and dancers, pop group Little Mix perform their latest single. Samuel L Jackson appears on the big screen, yelling at you to “Get Loud!”. Imagine all of this before Hull City vs Sunderland on a Saturday afternoon. The whole event experience is designed with entertainment first. Yes the sport keeps the serious fans coming back, but NFL games are also great days out for the family, whether your team wins or loses.
Another aspect to American Football which in some ways puts it closer to cricket than football, is the non-partisan nature of the fans. I was sat with fans from both the Lions and the Falcons, but I also managed to tick off sightings of almost all of the 32 NFL franchises over the course of the day. You come for the game and the event, not necessarily for the tribalism and arbitrary support of your club. It’s not better, just different – and perhaps this is why it appeals to some UK sports fans more than say, watching a drab England football side defeat Norway 1-0.
Other sports have crossed cultural boundaries before of course – Britain has famously exported cricket, rugby, football, snooker, golf, tennis and many more, especially to its colonial cousins. But Aussie Rules isn’t globally popular. Neither is Sumo Wrestling. And there’s a reason why Canada is consistently the Lacrosse world champions. Sports do cross cultures, but what makes sporting events more popular than others, from a cultural trends point of view, is interesting.
As event managers, we should always be on the lookout for the next big thing – perhaps getting behind your local American Football team would not be a bad strategy as the NFL continues its UK marketing push. Just don’t mention the London Monarchs.