For decades, US sports have enjoyed underground popularity in the UK. From staying up to watch the Superbowl on Channel 4 in the 1990s to the glamour of courtside at the NBA finals, US sports are famous for having an incredibly dramatic sense of occasion that few other events can match. Over the years, attempts have been made to increase the reach of US sports across the Atlantic, but few have been able to succeed.
With the NFL and NBA both hosting successful regular season matches in London across the last decade, and the MLB joining in for 2019 and 2020, why are American sports so keen to secure a British audience?
This simple answer is that a wider audience generates more revenue. Sports like football and rugby transcend borders and, while they are not as popular in the US itself, they have passionate followings on every continent. For a long time, American sports have been content and unwilling to actively pursue an international fanbase.To understand the motivations and see why this has changed, it is necessary to look at each sport individually.
Since 2007, London has hosted regular season NFL matches to great fanfare and success. In the last decade, the number of games has increased to as many as four per year, held across Wembley Stadium and Twickenham. The volume of games means that there is now only one of the 32 teams which has not visited London – the Green Bay Packers.
The NFL’s relationship with the UK has been a great success, but in the NFL has taken a dramatic step in ensuring a permanent presence in London. On October 6th, the 2019 International Series will begin when the Oakland Raiders and the Chicago Bears meet in the inaugural NFL game at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – the first purpose-built NFL stadium built outside America.
The stadium, which was part financed by the NFL, will host at least two games per season for the next 10 years. The Premier League club’s head of business development, Aidan Mullally has said that while the anchor tenant is Tottenham Hotspur, the stadium was designed to be a permanent home for the NFL outside the US.
Achieving the stadium’s dual-purpose required a number of innovations. This included unique fittings for the posts developed by International Series post supplier, Harrod Sport, which allow the posts to be secured on the retractable pitch.
As the number of sell-out games played each year gets close to what would be required for a home team to fulfil its fixtures, the prospect of a London Super Bowl or a franchise relocating to the UK look increasingly likely.
Through continued investment and commitment to a long-term goal, the International Series has become an established fixture of the season and the early stages of expansion for the future of the NFL.
The NFL are not alone in making London a home away from home for much of the last decade. Apart from 2012, the O2 Arena has hosted regular season games every year between 2011 and 2019 as part of the NBA Global Games. After decades of hosting preseason and regular season games, the London 2019 game was the 91st NBA game to be played in Europe. Targeting the continent rather than one country or city seems to be the strategy with which the NBA is planning the global expansion of its game.
Speaking to the press at the 2019 London Game, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called the relationship with London “a marriage in part of convenience” and suggested that a game in Paris is likely to take place in 2020. It has since been confirmed and there will not be a London game in 2020.
It is likely that witnessing NFL Europe (an attempt to establish an ongoing European league under the NFL banner) crumble away in the early 2000s, has formed this strategy. Rather than running a competition across Europe and seeing attendances slip as it became normal and familiar over the years, choosing to switch host cities for the International games maintain the sense of occasion with fresh audiences waiting in every country.
However successful these events are, this strategy keeps the games as much about the celebrities seated on the halfway line as the action on the court. In contrast, the NFL’s London games have become a part of the sporting calendar and are embraced as such, with a sense of pride and ownership, rather than as a touring show. To put down roots in Europe beyond a reputation for glitz and glamour, the NBA needs to commit to more than just one game in Europe.
With regular-season games being played in the UK for the NBA and NFL, it was no surprise that the MLB decided to join in. This time, the venue was London Stadium which was transformed into a baseball park for a two-game series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in June 2019. With an attendance of 59,659, the opening game was the best attended MLB games since 2003, demonstrating the interest and enthusiasm for US sport in the UK and leading to confirmation of a 2020 series.
As much as British fans may complain about the length of an American Football game, the truth is Brits love slow sports – tennis, golf, cricket and snooker matches can all easily run over the three-hour mark and into multiple days. Baseball sits in this company and, as a consequence, is struggling to stand out among faster-paced sports at home. BaseballSoftballUK CEO John Boyd has admitted that the sport has struggled to increase its fanbase in the younger demographics of America in the same way that basketball and American football have been able to due, in part, to its pacing.
It makes sense, then, for this slow-paced sport to try and find a new audience in a country that is intrinsically tied to multi-day events like the Ashes. Fatefully, Baseball’s disputed origins suggest that the game may have been first played in England, originating alongside Rounders and Cricket, as far back as the 14th century – making the London Series a form of homecoming.
While it might not be able to reach the scale of support the NFL has found, or the kudos of the NBA, MLB could have discovered an audience with an appreciation for Baseball that is currently lacking in the US.
It is still a heavily-mocked convention that the eventual winners of US Championships proclaim themselves to be ‘World Champions’ despite only playing North American opponents. But perhaps this is about to change. The NFL recently announced the NFL Academy, a London-based pathway to recruit international players into the NFL. Similarly, MLB are running a number of initiatives to encourage participation.
Across sports, the buzzword with international events is now ‘legacy’. Putting on an annual show of fireworks and Americana is one thing, but success for these events is not just about selling merchandise, but increasing awareness, participation and engagement so that their respective sports can become established around the world.