Why the UK is sleeping on, and through, the NFL

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On paper, the NFL should appeal across the board to the UK’s armchair sports enthusiasts. It combines the strategic intensity and consistency of Test cricket with rugby’s sheer power and football’s call for technical skill and individual brilliance. Every play and movement has been intricately handcrafted by the sport’s finest minds and is executed by some of the finest athletes worldwide.

Games are consistently high scoring and full of action, with almost every play requiring a perfect balance of risk and reward that only cricket can really match. A fumble or interception can and will change games instantly and great defensive play can be as entertaining as great offensive play, which is something no other popular UK sport can claim.

If your team has had a bad season, they instantly get the opportunity to turn their fortunes around in the draft, another element UK sport is missing as a way to level the playing field.

It is very rare that the worst-performing franchises stay bad for long and even rarer that the best stay the best. This season’s worst team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, now have the opportunity to draft Trevor Lawrence, someone widely touted as one of the greatest college prospects of all time. In an instant, they could become one of the league’s top sides.

The season only runs from September to February, shorter than UK sports’ normal seasons. There are trade windows which mimic football’s fabled transfer windows and blockbuster trades arguably happen more often than big transfers. It’s a sport which can either have incredible depth to it, analysing every play and college prospect, or can simply be appreciated for its energetic and deeply entertaining aesthetic. There’s very little for the average UK sports fan to dislike, and a lot to love.

There’s very little for the average UK sports fan to dislike, and a lot to love.

The most common criticism I’ve heard is about players wearing pads, but when you see the size of the athletes and the speed they’re allowed to hit at over and over again (with very few regulations), it is evident that they are necessary. A much more relevant criticism is the repeated adverts, but they’re just filling time that couldn’t be spent playing anyway and give a welcome break for either analysis or snacks. September 2020 saw the launch of Sky Sports NFL, which many thought, or still think, would be massive for NFL popularity in Britain. It will certainly help – it shows at least five live games a week, with red zone and dedicated pundits.

Sunday evening’s Super Bowl LV was watched by an estimated 100 million people in the USA and 30-50 million more across the world. In the UK, this year’s viewership peaked at 1.3 million in the first five minutes, an all-time high. This also highlighted one of the key issues with NFL’s lack of popularity in the UK. The biggest game of the year kicked off at 11:30pm GMT and I made it to bed just before 4:00am on Monday morning.

Now, I’ve watched every minute of the last four Super Bowls. However, I’m also a student who’s used to going to bed at 4:00am and who knows that not sleeping won’t make my day at work a nightmare, because I’ll only have a few seminars.

However, this isn’t just a problem for the Super Bowl. Regular Season NFL games are played on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights, with only a few Sunday evening games being played at what most UK sports fans would call ‘a reasonable hour’. If you want to watch the team you follow and they play at 11:30pm on a Sunday evening six times a season, most UK fans over the age of 21 are going to choose a good night’s sleep, because when they have to be up for 7:00am the next morning, it’s not really a choice.

As simple as it sounds, this is NFL’s biggest obstacle to mainstream UK success. Having a dedicated channel loses its point when so few people are awake to watch it. People fall in love with a sport by watching it and developing a deeper love for the teams and the players.

Not being able to watch it makes this virtually impossible, however lovable the NFL is. American Football is going to have to wait for our generation to grow up and hope that we’ve developed enough of a love of the sport through our teenage years to sacrifice sleep and share our passion with our children. If not, the NFL may continue to lag behind its UK competition.

Image: NFLUK.com via Flickr

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