BBC, Birmingham Bulls, Buffalo Bills, Channel 4, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Gridiron, Hubert Humphrey, ITV, Joe Nameth, Leicester City, Leicester Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, Moe Wiliams, New England Patriots, New York Jets, NFL, Randy Moss, Sky, Super Bowl, UK, UKAFA, West Bromwich Albion, William Perry, World of Sport
So at the end of the season with the year about to end, it feels like looking back is an appropriate thing to do and I have a special post I have been sitting. Having been setting us trivia question for two seasons Dan’s Dad is now stepping up to take a crack at this blogging lark, and whilst I started this blog over four and a half years ago with a post called Why American Football? so Dan’s Dad takes a look at his own voyage of NFL discovery, which might feature a couple of familiar stops along the way.
I hope you enjoy!
Why do any of us follow a sporting team? Why do we take on the joys and frustrations, pain even, that come with being part of the club? It’s hard to say. Being part of a group with shared interests is generally a positive thing but back in the 70’s when I first encountered it the NFL was a very much minority interest sport. It has taken decades of the enthusiasm of many to put it where it currently is in the UK. Without the growing awareness, support and dedication of the fans it could easily have died on the vine, but look at it now and without any doubt TV, so often a vilified intrusion, has been a major factor.
Running alongside the BBC’s Grandstand (Frank Bough) was ITV’s World of sport on a Saturday afternoon and this is where I became infected with the NFL bug. It ran from 1965 to 1985 (with Dickie Davies the best known of its presenters) and was possibly best remembered for horse racing and wrestling but it did allow the very occasional sortie into ‘Gridiron’ football. Admittedly this was limited to about one hour of highlights from the previous week’s Super Bowl and to many this was an alien world of men in padded suits and a scoring system of almost impenetrable complexity. The concept of ‘downs’ and playing a game in ten yard chunks was new and to a 60s and 70s US-infatuated Britain became irresistible for many. But limited coverage became a taster and a trial to see if a bigger offering would be justified. We now know that it certainly was.
I was lucky enough to take a trip to the US in 1971 where my first hand awareness was triggered. From that trip I returned with, sorry for this Dan, a replica Jets shirt and an appreciation of someone called Joe Namath who was one of the stars of the day and still a figure due considerable respect. I was twelve, and to a twelve-year-old just being in the States was huge. Do I follow the Jets now? No, but more of that to come.
By 1982 Channel 4 started showing weekly highlights and that, for me was the match that lit the fuse on the game in the UK to an ever widening audience. By the time that the Bears defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XX the game was firmly established with no fewer than four million tuning in for that game.
It wasn’t just a spectator sport either and many would argue that crowd control issues in other sports compared to a very safe environment offered by the NFL sport drew audiences. There was also a growth in the number of local teams which culminated in the creation of the UKAFA in 1985 and when Budweiser announced a £300,000 fund to grow the sport in the UK in 1986 when the Leicester Falcons and the Birmingham Bulls played to determine which team would be Britain’s inaugural entry into European competition. The Bulls came out on top in a 32–18 victory.
1986 also saw the first ever official NFL game at Wembley between the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys. This recognised the growth of the game, its ethos and the personalities it brought with it. The players were the celebrities and none bigger, literally, than William Perry also known as The Fridge. 6ft 3 and 350 lbs Perry was the immovable object both for the Bears, drafted in 1985 and latterly played at the Eagles but had the name that everyone knew. He will forever be remembered as part of the Bears team which took on the Cowboys in the first official NFL game at Wembley.
Channel 4 ceased broadcasts in 1997 but returned in a cut down format in 2010 as a free-to-air offering against Sky whose coverage has become the ‘go to’ product in the view of many.
When Sky TV came to the table and brought their extensive coverage of sport to UK NFL viewers was, for me, an enormous leap in the sport’s fortunes, bigger than that which Channel 4 gave it. I have a downer on turning free to air into pay-to-view and feel that in one way or another football, cricket, golf and F1 in particular have suffered, or sometimes the genuine fans of these sports have been disadvantaged. However, while the above sports were ripe for modernisation, maybe plundering is another word, and Sky could offer that, NFL was on the cusp of becoming mainstream.
Where various channels had ‘dabbled’ and Chanel 4 was largely a highlights offering, the real demand was for live games and Sky could offer that in abundance. With regularly five or more live games (albeit in the middle of the night all too often) and a rolling highlights offering the fan is well served. Include the benefits of Game Pass and the package is almost complete.
The only ‘next step’ is for fully live games and thanks to the advances over the years and the growing, and well supported, International Series the UK has to be approaching its own franchise.
I was lucky to get the opportunity to see a live game during a business trip to Minneapolis in 2003. Even fifteen years later the whole event remains memorable. After five wins the Vikings hosted the Broncos at the Hubert Humphrey winning 28-20 thanks, in part to a majestic lateral from Randy Moss to Moe Williams on the last play of the first half rivalling the double lateral by the Dolphins in Week 14!
It was interesting to see, in the flesh, everything that happens not just what the TV chooses to show. The game is almost choreographed as the various teams switch in and out seamlessly but it’s when there is a game break or a review that you see the complexity of the game.
In the same way I remember my first soccer game, West Bromwich Albion at Leicester, in the days where the Police would watch the game not the crowd. It is so often the first team you see that becomes ‘your team’ and thick or thin (Dan and Gee will both recognise this) they are that for life. So I am a Viking, a Purple People Eater.
The opportunity came along to visit the US again in 2008. We had seen Wembley games but Dan and I managed to see the Vikings at the Bears and the following weekend the Dolphins hosting the Bills. We had to miss that year’s Wembley game to do it but it was worth it. For the record the Bears won 48-41 while the Dolphins won 25-16. While Wembley was special, doing it in the US was another level. Now it would not, probably, be overly unusual to find Brits going to games over there but back then the US fans we met were blown away that a couple of Brits were doing a road trip. That shows how the whole game has evolved here, and how that has shrunk the world and I can only see that continuing.
Look at the development of new arenas in the US. Each new one seems to be grander that the one before, bigger, better facilities – it won’t end but while the UK is keen to get more that also serves the US. It’s not global domination they want, but expanding influence is financially advantageous all round.
With an ever growing opportunity for blogs, podcasts, websites, TV including the BBC and other ways for the fan base to get their NFL fix it is almost inconceivable that the UK will not have its own franchise within ‘a handful’ of seasons. The expansion of the International series was clearly a good way of proving that the UK could support one and the results seem most positive. So advanced are the plans that we also have stadia being built as multi-sport venues even enabling the swapping out of a pitch to suit the next game – and moving to something that size is akin to a new sport being launched. So if the next move for a pitch happens to be about 3500 miles so be it. That would be some Field Goal.