American football in the UK

    American football has a surprisingly long history in the UK and it’s one filled with ups and downs.

    This is the golden era for British NFL fans. While fans like me, in our 40s, have fond memories of the rise of the sport in the 1980s, I doubt that any of us would swap.

    Back then we had weekly highlights programmes, which evolved slowly into limited live coverage, and the occasional pre-season exhibition game at Wembley. It doesn’t come close to today’s offering. A British fan today can watch four or five live games a week, so long as you have Sky, and go to three or four regular-season games in London every year. And if you pay for a full Game Pass subscription then you can watch any game live and all the others in full later.

    The best indication of how far we have come was when fans complained that the league will play just three games in London in 2018, compared to the four in 2017. Even 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have made sense to complain about “only” three games. And 30 years ago the idea of the NFL playing any competitive games in London was unthinkable.

    It’s been a longer journey than you might think. In Touchdown: UK, Nick Richards explains that the first recorded American football game in Britain was played in Kent in 1910 between the crews of two visiting US warships. By the 1950s, Britain’s American Air Force bases were competing against each other and their European counterparts in a league that culminated in the USAFE Football Championship final.

    Wembley Stadium hosted the final in 1952. The first American football touchdown at Wembley, therefore, was scored by a Lancashire team, the RAF Burtonwood Bullets. (US Air Force bases retained the ‘RAF’ prefix, even though they were not actually Royal Air Force bases.) Despite scoring first, the Bullets lost to the Fursternfeldbrook Eagles, from a US base in Bavaria, Germany.

    Richards does a great job of chronicling the rise of the sport through the 1960s and 1970s, often tracking down former servicemen who played for those teams and telling their stories and those of their comrades. Many had been talented college players and a few were on NFL teams.

    The sport remained a niche for expats throughout this period but began to make an impression on Brits in the 1980s. Richards attributes the rise to two key factors. First, a new television channel, Channel 4, launched in 1982 and needed content. Its remit was to provide alternative entertainment, so American football – colourful, new and exciting – seemed a perfect fit.

    Embed from Getty Images

    The coverage prompted a British promoter to bring the Minnesota Vikings and St Louis Cardinals to Wembley in 1983 for an exhibition game. The game lost £400,000 but did manage to attract 37,000 fans.

    Second, Richards points out that English football (soccer) was going through a bad patch. A broadcasting strike in 1984-85 meant there were no live games on television and Channel 4’s American football benefited. Worse, soccer was gaining a reputation for fan violence and, as the decade wore on, was marked by a series of tragedies, at Heysel Stadium, in Brussels, Belgium, at Valley Parade in Bradford and at Hillsborough in Sheffield. Soccer didn’t fully recover until after the 1990 World Cup.

    Despite the financial failure of Wembley’s first NFL game, the sport’s popularity continued to rise, prompting the league to launch the American Bowl series with a 1986 pre-season game between the Chicago Bears, then Super Bowl champions, and the Dallas Cowboys. It was the first in a series of eight games in London that ended in 1993 with a 13-13 tie between the Cowboys and the Detroit Lions.

    The American Bowl brand lived on until 2005, however, with games in Barcelona, Berlin, Dublin, Tokyo, and Mexico City.

    British American Football

    Where Richards’ book is particularly good is on the rise of the British American football teams. The first team to be formed in the UK was the London Ravens, in 1983. By 1985 there were more than 100 teams in Britain. Richards lists many of them and the various leagues to which they were affiliated.

    We may never know who thought it was a good idea to name a team the Bristol Slave Traders but we should all be grateful for the genius who named Staines Removers.

    Richards talks about the 1980s as Britain’s “Golden Decade” for American football. I said at the beginning that this is the golden era for NFL fans, but for fans of American football – not just the NFL variety – the 1980s was special.

    The crucial element for Richards was the activity in the British sport. There are British teams today – and very successful ones – but I can see how Richards is drawn to the excitement of the 1980s when new teams and leagues seemed to spring up all the time. That began to decline in the 1990s, partly due to the arrival of the World League.

    I hadn’t paid much attention to British American football, beyond watching occasional games by some team that played in a park in Hayes, west London. To this day, I have no idea what they were called. We didn’t even know their schedule; sometimes they were in the park on a Sunday when we wandered over and sometimes they weren’t.

    For me, the arrival of the London Monarchs in 1991 was amazing. This was our own competitive team, featuring real NFL players, albeit fringe players. They were up against teams from the US, Canada, Spain, and Germany. I went to three games in that first season – two in the regular season and then the World Bowl at Wembley, which the Monarchs won.

    Richards makes an argument about the World League that I hadn’t considered: many British American football players and fans believed that the new league had a negative effect on their teams. Gerry McManus, then coach at the Coventry Cassidy Jets, tells him: “I think it actually took our fan base away at a local level and never helped the domestic game to grow.”

    I’m not entirely convinced that a handful of Wembley games would draw people away from games in Coventry or elsewhere across the country, but I can see that the perception of the World League as offering higher quality football than the homegrown alternative could have had a negative effect.

    The NFL had first toyed with the idea of international expansion in 1974, with the Intercontinental Football League, which was to include teams from Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Turkey. The league never played a game. At the time the US was entering recession and the NFL was competing with the short-lived World Football League, which had 13 teams – all, despite the name, playing in the US.

    By the late-1980s, the NFL was ready to try again and 26 of the league’s 28 teams donated $500,000 to get the World League off the ground. What seemed successful to me, as the London Monarchs celebrated winning the first World Bowl, was less so behind the scenes.

    Embed from Getty Images

    In the US, viewing figures were poor and teams averaged 22,000 attendees per game, compared with 30,000 for the European teams. The end of the first season also saw various players try their luck with the NFL and not all returned to their teams for the second season. As detailed in Alex Cassidy’s book, American Football’s Forgotten Kings, the Monarchs had a miserable time, coming nowhere near a second World Bowl title and finishing with a 2-7-1 record.

    Attendances were slipping, even in Europe, and the NFL suspended the World League after the 1992 season. When the league returned in 1995, the American teams were gone. Instead, the London Monarchs, Barcelona Dragons and Frankfurt Galaxy were joined by the Scottish Claymores, Amsterdam Admirals and Rhein Fire. Each team would play the others twice, over a 10 game season.

    World League in decline

    The Monarchs were now at White Hart Lane – beginning a link between Tottenham Hotspur and American football that will resume in 2019 when the NFL plays at the new Spurs stadium.

    White Hart Lane was half full for Monarchs’ games. Literally – the team closed one half of the stadium and the fans were all seated in the other, staring at banks of empty seats. Average attendance was around 10,000. I went to one game that year and the atmosphere was flat. It was nothing like Wembley had been a few years earlier.

    Not only that, but the stadium wasn’t big enough for a full-size NFL field, so each end zone was six yards deep, with the last yard sloping downwards. Brad Johnson, who would later win a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, was the Monarchs’ quarterback that year and he told Cassidy: “We did have a quarterback, Kevin McDougal, he dropped back at the end of the season on the one yard line and he fell out of the end zone and ended up taking a safety on a five-yard drop. It was kind of awkward.”

    The Monarchs finished 4-6 that year – and the following two seasons. Still struggling to draw crowds, they moved to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. In 1998 the World League was renamed NFL Europe and the Monarchs became the England Monarchs, splitting their home games between London – now, in a further downgrade, at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre – Bristol and Birmingham.

    The Monarchs went 3-7, London fans were alienated and attendances in Bristol and Birmingham were little better. The Monarchs did not return the following season.

    Embed from Getty Images

    The Scottish Claymores, meanwhile, had been up and down. A 2-8 season in 1995 was followed by a league-topping 7-3 in 1996 and victory in World Bowl IV. They continued to play until 2004, returning to the World Bowl once, in 2000, and losing to the Fire.

    Lars Anderson’s The Proving Ground is a great behind-the-scenes look at that 2000 season. I really enjoy books written from inside the team, such as John Feinstein’s Next Man Up, but this one is especially interesting because NFL Europe was nowhere near as glamorous or organised as the NFL.

    Anderson follows the team through their ‘haunted’ hotel and chronicles the culture shock of playing in one foreign country and making road trips to other, even more foreign, places. Life on the team is tense, with the players divided along race lines, and relations with other teams are even worse, as Anderson demonstrates with the story of a narrowly-avoided bar fight against the Rhein Fire.

    After the Claymores folded in 2004, the league’s final three seasons featured the Amsterdam Admirals and five German teams. The league’s final game was in June 1997. Just four months later the International Series began as the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants played the first NFL regular season game outside North America.

    In 2017, the NFL played four regular season games in London. In 2018 there will be just three but the road to expansion continues. Shad Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have played in London every year since 2013, is in talks to buy Wembley Stadium. If the deal goes through, it will fuel speculation that Khan intends to move the Jaguars to London.

    The NFL’s Mark Waller, who oversees international games, has said London could have its own team by 2021. There would be plenty of obstacles to overcome before then, of course. Would the team be at an unfair disadvantage because of the distance of even the shortest road trip? Would its division be at a disadvantage because each team would play one international game every year? How would players handle taxes and work permit rules?

    Nevertheless, these are not unsolvable problems. The move seems more likely with each year. It’s beyond the wildest dreams of those who turned up to watch the Vikings and Cardinals play 35 years ago.

    The books
    Touchdown: UK by Nick Richards (AuthorHouse, 2009)

    American Football’s Forgotten Kings by Alex Cassidy (Pitch Publishing, 2015)
    The Proving Ground by Lars Anderson (St Martin’s Press, 2001)

    Top photo: Timmey O’Toole

    2 COMMENTS

    Leave a Reply