The San Francisco 49ers have one of the biggest fan bases, if not the biggest fan base, of an NFL team in the United Kingdom. On first thought, this would seem somewhat odd considering the 49ers were not very good for the majority of the 2000s, as the NFL made its push with games in the UK, but there is much, much more to the story.
In the early 1980s there were only three television channels for the UK. Yes, the isles are small enough for free-TV channels to be “nation-wide,” something Fox and CBS can only accomplish with affiliates. A new channel, uncreatively named “Channel 4,” decided it needed something different and unique to stand out from the competition. It also wanted some form of sport, but soccer, rugby, and cricket, the three most popular sports across the pond, were all locked up in contracts with one of the other broadcasters. Someone with influence in Channel 4, however, saw the amazing sport of American Football and looked into the broadcast rights. For what would today be an incredibly tiny fee. It became a hit.
American Football swept the UK by storm, with a lot of issues in soccer, as well as a great highlights show on Channel 4–which I will get to in a subsequent series of articles. Though the NFL barely gave the UK a second glance until the late ’80s, it earned itself a healthy following. As the 49ers were the team of the decade, they garnered a lot of the fan base.
So that is why, nineteen years since the Lombardi Trophy last came to San Francisco, Brits still love the 49ers.