A UK based social commentator on all things American Sport? #2 Is growth good?
Some people will say that Brits shouldn’t have an opinion on anything American because they “just don’t know” and others will welcome the external opinion and new debate. Either way, there is a growing interest in US based sport and unless you selfishly want to keep it all to yourself, that can only be a good thing.
I outlined some of my personal reasons as to why my own interest in sport across the Atlantic was increasing in Post #1, though I felt it was important to consider why other Brits and Europeans are becoming more and more interested in American sports, thus growing the game(s).
There are obvious reasons as to why the sports are growing in popularity; increased exposure to TV thanks to Satellite TV, increased investment meaning eye-catching/watering wages to grab anyone’s attention, I’d even go as far as saying the reduction of prejudices toward “their sports” from brits. I thought I would go through some additional reasons I would suggest are helping the growth of some of the leading professional sports across the Atlantic.
The easiest way to breakdown the reasons for growth is by sport;
In many ways the reasons for NFL’s ever-growing popularity in the UK is obvious; thanks to SKY SPORTS there is wall-to-wall coverage every Sunday from September through to February with all the Thursday, Monday and holiday fixtures thrown in there. SKY SPORTS have stolen the bragging rights as the ‘UK home of NFL’ from Channel 4 since they originally brought American Football to terrestrial TV in 1982 – considering how accessible and some of the half-time performers booked for “The Greatest Show on Earth”, I would be amazed if there were many UK households that hadn’t had NFL on their screens at some point.
On a similar accessible note, British NFL fans now have more opportunities than ever to watch American Football live. 2017 saw 4 NFL fixtures in London (at Wembley Stadium and Twickenham) from September 24th to October 29th whilst the Jacksonville Jaguars have committed to using the former stadium as a ‘home’ ground for at least one regular season fixture through to 2020 (they have been coming to London since 2013). No doubts this is a step in the right direction towards an internationally based NFL franchise, and if London was to be the chosen home for a new team then NFL would go through the roof here in the UK – if the 2007 UK based exhibition game at Wembley sold 40,000 tickets in 90 minutes then I would be scared to predict how fast season tickets would sell for the 7 ‘home’ regular season games.
Lastly, as NFL grows in popularity in the UK, the number of Brits playing the game, either competitively or as a pastime increases. Nearly every university in the UK has an American Football society – either playing or socially to watch games – and the number of amateur clubs is growing annually, often pitch sharing with local rugby clubs and generating members that way. The participation increase has led to a couple of players breaking onto franchise rosters – London-born and 2016 Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi was recently involved in a headline trade from the Miami Dolphins to the Philadelphia Eagles (he rushed for 77 yards on 8 carries including 1 touchdown on his debut the week after being traded). Lawrence Okoye is a name that may not be familiar with too many Americans, however the former Great Britain discus thrower at the London 2012 Olympics has been a part of no less than 6 NFL franchises, as part of an offseason roster or practice squad (originally traded in 2013 by the Fan Francisco 49ers as a defensive tackle, Okoye has also been listed on squads with the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and the Miami Dolphins). Okoye recently made his Canadian Football league debut for the Montreal Alouettes on September 18th. A final name worth mentioning is Alex Gray – or ‘Shaggy’ as he was affectionately known on the rugby pitch. Having enjoyed a 7-year career as a professional rugby union player, starting at Newcastle Falcons and enjoying time representing England Sevens, Alex is currently listed on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad having been drafted through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. Whilst Alex won’t be able to be activated during the current season, many Brits will be following his off-season progress heading into the 2018/19 season. Two other Brits will be joining NFL training rosters thanks to the same training programme; Efe Obada has joined the Panthers having previously been with the Cowboys and Alex Jenkins has been assigned to the Saints.
It could be argued that the greatest Christmas present America ever gave us here in England was the razzmatazz London has experienced every January for the last six years; The New Year NBA fixture at the O2 Arena. 20,000 people pack the arena and welcome the event with open arms, enjoying a different day out to your usual New Year festivities. Whilst the challenge will always be retaining that audience, with some claiming that people enjoy the ‘event’ rather than the ‘game’, if 10% of the people that have walked through the door to an NBA London game stay interested in the game (interested being picking a team and periodically following their progress and checking how they’re getting on), that’s about 12,000 new fans over the 6 visits. Suppose each of those ‘new fans’ tell 10 of their friends how great their day was and how good basketball is, and half of those people then become interested in the sport themselves, that number of interested people is now up to over 70,000 total new engagers with the game. Not massive numbers, but still growing. Right?
Another reason for the growth of NBA this side of the Atlantic is the growing popularity of the sport on the whole in Europe itself (yes, pushing the East Atlantic boundary to the whole of Europe for a moment). Popular in Balkan countries, as well as Spain and other countries in mainland Europe, people who have an interest in the game at the highest level in these parts will have a natural interest in the sport at the highest level it is played in America. Add to that the odd British and European name finding their way onto some franchise rosters and naturally interest spurs. The key to this, as with NFL, is that the elite level of the sport is more accessible than ever in the UK.
The next big game to come to London HAS to be America’s Pastime. Major League Baseball has been toying with the idea of using London for an international series and it looks as though 2019 (and/or 2020) may be set to be announced during the 2018 regular season. MLB are certainly showing willing to take the regular season around the globe, announcing recently that the Dodgers and Padres will play a 3 game series in Monterry, Mexico in early May – less than a month after the Twins and Indians play a 2 game set in San Juan, Puerto Rico. No doubt the current sticking point is finding a team willing to give up a home series (ticket revenue is always important) and one keen to travel – the AL East is the most obvious division to pull a series from due to travel distance, and with the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays all in the top 10 for attendance across all franchises, the onus may be put on the Rays and Orioles to head east (Tampa have the lowest attendance in all of baseball and Baltimore are in the bottom 10). Though it could be argued that the UK needs a big series to engage the audience – but maybe that should be a topic for another day.
The other reason MLB will always be popular is the apparel. Streets ahead of both the NFL and NBA in terms of sales, despite not having visited yet, official MLB merchandise outsells the other two leagues by nearly 70% according to MOTIONPOINT. Even the least revered baseball fans in the UK would probably recognise the word ‘Yankees’. On a similar standing to Manchester United and Real Madrid in terms of fan-pull, the Pinstripes from The Bronx account for a huge 38% of all MLB apparel sold since 2010; nearly every millennial has a baseball cap of sorts in their wardrobe nowadays – I think it’s called ‘Roadman’ or something.
You’ve heard of David Beckham, right? The one who was sent off against Argentina at the ’98 World Cup. The one who scored England’s greatest ever free-kick (v Greece to qualify for the ’02 World Cup). The one who captained his country nearly 60 times. The man who made the #7 and #23 shirts his own. The man who started the trend of retiring stars moving to the MLS to prolong their careers and help grow the game. The man who is set to be given the green light by the MLS themselves to own a Miami based franchise. Remember? Yeah, him. He sparked interest in the MLS when he originally moved over, and I can’t help but feel that his continued interest in the league by wanting to own a franchise is helping to retain both public and professionals interest in the league. Whilst ‘soccer’ has always been popular in England, the MLS – by virtue of improved coverage and research interest (sports science and analytics heavy) – is more in the public eye than ever in the UK.
MMA & Boxing
My last sporting body to look at is the UFC. Conor McGregor. Michael Bisping (maybe not for much longer). And more recently Darren Tell. All big names, all British and all at the forefront of any UFC or MMA conversation. UFC is starting to compete with boxing as the most popular, televised combat sport in the UK – yes, THE NOTORIOUS made the crossover so probably takes the credit for boxing, too. Even Brits that don’t know much about the rest of the UFC or MMA have heard of Conor. Everyone waits on bated breath to find out who he’s going to fight next and when; will it be the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz? Tony Ferguson for the Lightweight title? Khabib in Russia? De La Hoya?(!) Conor has his pick of fights (and cheques), and though he is under contract, he likely picks and chooses who and what he wants – he’s the real UFC MVP and for the sport to continue to grow on these shores, the UFC need Conor McGregor.
If Conor can crossover sports when he likes, I’m going to too. A superstar with considerable draw-power from the UK is a boxer. THE boxer: Anthony Joshua. 20 wins. 20 knockouts. That’s attention grabbing and it has certainly grabbed the attention of the heavyweight division, and a heavyweight-thirsty USA. Not many Brits sign a Showtime contract to be shown in the US without having ever fought in the States, but Joshua has that pull and the US public are hungry to see their pin-up heavyweight against our main-man. Deontay Wilder V Anthony Joshua – confirmed by Eddie Hearn to be happening in 2018. Tenuous link, but maybe one of our own in AJ is helping grow British interest in American boxing as people quickly jump to find out more about the BRONZE BOMBER.
Just a few of my own thoughts on a few of American mainstay sports, their growing popularity over here and some potential reasons why. Agree or disagree – debate is good, let me know what you think and whether there are any other sports you think are growing or not in the UK. Or maybe even some sports from these shores that may be growing in the States; Rugby? Cricket? Anything?!
Hold tight, James Dawne.