It’s more than 40 years since the UK’s Channel 4 decided that the NFL would make good Sunday evening viewing for a generation of Brits whose only other options were boring sitcoms or religious programming. To a young child, as I was, it felt like Sunday TV was entirely aimed at my grandparents’ generation.
American football changed that. It was colourful, brutal and somehow exciting – even if you didn’t quite understand what was happening. It wasn’t just kids who were hooked; the NFL also lured in adult sport lovers and Americanophiles (which Meriam-Webster says is a word). Pretty soon the NFL was playing its American Bowl pre-season games in London, which would be followed by European teams in the World League and later NFL Europe.
The 90s brought something of a lull, followed by an NFL rethink in the 2000s which culminated in regular season games being played in London – as they are to this day. The story of how we got here is interesting from a sports business and a cultural perspective, but Ben Isaacs centres his book on people: the fans who actually made all this happen.
Numerous examples in the book transported me back to when I first got into the NFL. Like Isaacs and several of his interviewees, Super Bowl XX was my introduction to the sport and from then on I couldn’t get enough. Fortunately, there was no shortage of information available, even if we did have to wait a day or two to get the latest scores. As one interviewee puts it: “To think we had three monthly magazines and two weekly newspapers for a while is insane.”
There are all kinds of dedicated fans here, from Crusader Raider, the costumed alter ego of Las Vegas Raiders superfan Keith Smith, to Darren Conway, whose Chicago Bears fanzine was a years-long labour of love. Some came to the game via the John Madden video game series, while others were hooked on fantasy football. Isaacs also meets memorabilia collectors, tailgate obsessives and gamblers.
Rather than passive consumers, Isaacs finds an army of active participants who worked to build connections with other fans, starting communities around the sport and its teams. It’s a book that emphasises that the popularity of the sport in the UK was not the work of the NFL or Channel 4. It was the work of the fans.
Ben Isaacs is a journalist, author and broadcaster who co-hosts talkSPORT’s NFL coverage. His first book was Today in NFL History. The American Football Revolution is his second book.
Books with self-contained chapters sometimes lose momentum; at the end of one chapter, you have to summon the energy to change course and meet a new character. That doesn’t happen here because Isaacs is such a good storyteller. Each chapter starts with an engaging hook and, before you know it, you’re a few pages deep in a new aspect of the story. The writing is engaging and well-paced, which makes for a very easy read.
Any British fans who, like me, discovered the NFL in the 1980s will love this book. It’s not just for them, however. Newcomers to the sport – as well as American fans – might be surprised to learn how far back the NFL’s UK history goes. There’s plenty in here for everyone.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
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Photo: Tony Hisgett