NFL season begins: Why American Football could be bigger than rugby in the UK

Joe Hall
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Derrick Coleman celebrates his touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night (Source: Getty)

While the Premier League takes a break this weekend, another "football" league has got underway.

Across the pond, the National Football League (NFL), the flagship American Football league whose teams beat even the Premier League in terms of revenue, has kicked off a new season.

With its return will follow a growing legion of devoted UK fans arriving bleary-eyed into work on Monday and Tuesday mornings, after late nights spent glued to live coverage broadcast across three networks - Eurosport, Channel 4 and Sky Sports.

This year could be the sport's biggest ever in the UK, with Channel 4 committed to broadcasting 21 live games - the most NFL games ever shown free-to-air in the UK over a single season.

"The community for the sport is really growing," says David Tossell, NFL director of public affairs for the UK and Europe, in reference to membership growth from 35,000 in 2007 to 400,000 today.

2007 marked the first year of the NFL's expansion onto British territory in the form of the "International Series" - regular season games held at Wembley Stadium in London. The project has been a giant success. So much so that this year, three games across three months will be held at Wembley for the first time.

Annual research conducted by the NFL suggests that 2.8m people in the UK state they are "very interested in the league" and would still consider themselves fans.

The NFL may still be lightyears away from the tidal wave of attention poured upon the Premier League on these shores, but its growth can be seen when compared to rugby, a recognised major sport.

For example, Google Trends reveals that UK searches for NFL stars compare favourably to the biggest rugby players of the day. The numbers on the graph do not represent total search numbers, but the number of searches for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time.

Peyton Manning, the 38-year-old quarterback for the Denver Broncos, has picked up more Google searches from the UK than England rugby captain Chris Robshaw. The graph below shows a huge spike for Manning around the time of the Super Bowl XLVIII last February, when his Broncos side lost to the Seattle Seahawks. The biggest spike for Robshaw was miniature in comparison, and fell during the final week of the Six Nations Championship when England played both Scotland and Wales.

Another example illustrates a similar point. Johnny Manziel, the mischievous young quarterback who only joined the league this year as a draft pick for the Cleveland Browns, has generated more online interest in the UK than England fly-half Owen Farrell.

There have been consistently more searches for the NFL than for the Aviva Premiership (which also kicked off this weekend) over the last four years, with the difference between the two steadily rising. Unsurprisingly, both leagues are dwarfed by searches for the Premier League.

Furthermore, the biggest match audience for an Aviva Premiership rugby game last season was 276,000 for London Wasps' 22 - 12 victory over Leicester Tigers. In contrast, 895,700 people tuned into the Super Bowl. 203,700 watched on Sky while a further 692,000 opted for Channel 4.

It could be argued that those figures benefit from the novelty, high-profile event value the Super Bowl undoubtedly possesses, while the Aviva Premiership has to more steadily command the country's attention over a 24 game season. However, 13.8 million people in the UK watched the NFL at some point last year, while the Aviva Premiership recorded a combined season audience of 7.8 million for live coverage of its games.

The biggest match audience for an Aviva Premiership rugby game last season was 276,000 for London Wasps' 22 - 12 victory over Leicester Tigers. In contrast, 895,700 people tuned in for the Super Bowl. 203,700 watched on Sky while a further 692,000 opted for Channel 4.

The graph below reveals that the average views for Sky Sports' Super Bowl coverage has almost doubled in just five years.

Where could all this growth in NFL interest be leading? According to league commissioner Roger Goodell, it could result in London having its very own franchise sooner rather than later.

Goodell said earlier this summer:

It depends on if we continue to see that growth and how fast it goes. We couldn't be happier with what we're seeing.

So a London franchise remains a possibility, yet one by-product of the NFL's UK success is a certainty - Monday mornings are going to be an increasing number of sleep-deprived fans in search of the nearest coffee shop over the next four months.

Upcoming NFL on UK TV:

  • Sunday 7th September 17:30 - New England Patriots @ Miami Dolphins (Sky Sports 1)
  • Sunday 7th September 21:00 - San Francisco 49ers @ Dallas Cowboys (Sky Sports 1)
  • Monday 8th September 00:40 - Indianapolis Colts @ Denver Broncos (Channel 4)
  • Monday 8th Septemeber 19:45 - NFL Round-Up (Eurosport)
  • Monday 8th September 23:00 - The American Football Show (Channel 4)
  • Tuesday 9th September 00:00 - Live "Monday Night Football" New York Giants @ Detroit Lions / San Diego Chargers @ Arizona Cardinals (Eurosport)

*This article was amended on 08/09/14 to clarify the nature of Google Trends data.

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