This is the second in a series of articles based on my meeting with David Tossell, the NFL’s Director of Public Affairs for the UK and Europe. In this article we will discuss some of the NFL’s early attempts to spread its reach to Europe. As the San Francisco 49ers are perhaps the UK’s favorite team, I find it interesting to see how our fellow fans across the pond are perceiving and learning about the world’s greatest game. I hope you enjoy this as well.
The year was 1982. A fourth television channel was finally reaching the British airways, and “Channel 4,” as it was called, needed something different, something to set it apart from the other stations already broadcasting in the British Isles. It also needed sport. Therein lay a problem: cricket, rugby, and soccer all were locked up in television deals with one of the other stations.
One executive had experienced American Football on a trip to the U.S.A., however, and quite enjoyed it. As they needed something—anything—the station followed his advice and checked to see who held the rights to the NFL in the UK. The answer: nobody. Channel 4 pounced, and the NFL, somewhat surprised, agreed to a deal.
It was a hit. Channel 4 broadcasted no more than a weekly highlights show, but it was enough. This was partly due to its time slot. Beginning at 6:15 pm on Sundays, its competition consisted of little more than religious programming. Unsurprisingly, sport won the youngsters. Another contributing factor was the low popularity of soccer. The 1970s and 1980s are considered the “hooliganism” era, when crude, and rude fans, known as “hooligans,” posed a legitimate danger to anyone who entered a stadium. (If you think Seattle Seahawks fans are bad, they are not—just loud. I have heard, on more than one occasion during my visits to Premier League matches, stadium-wide chants consisting of obscenities, slurs, and insults.) Incredibly poor facilities did not help soccer’s reputation either. All of this led to a new sport soaring in popularity in the UK—just as the San Francisco 49ers happened to be the “Team of the Decade.”
Building off of the success of Channel 4’s highlights show, the NFL decided to play an annual pre-season game outside of the United States—the “American Bowl.” The initial game would be held at the old Wembley Stadium. For the same reasons preseason games get poor attendance in the US, this endeavor eventually failed. When there is nothing to play for and substitutes play more than half the game, it becomes quite boring. After a couple of years of high attendance, the crowds quickly shrank. (Despite this, the American Bowl lasted into 2003 with games being played in such places as Ireland, Mexico, and Japan.)
The NFL Owners did not sit idly by while the American Bowl collapsed. Where did they go next? We will explore this in Part 3 of this series.