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Volume 21 No. 33
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NFL running proper routes to attract football fans across the pond

W hen the New England Patriots play, Callum Sheppard huddles in front of a television screen with his friends in his college dorm room.

And if the Pats play the Denver Broncos, he sends smack talk to his brother, Connor, who doesn’t care much for Tom Brady.

A typical Sunday for National Football League fans in the United States? Maybe so, but the Sheppard brothers live in England. For them, this is normal, too. And in the eyes of the NFL, they are part of a perfect scenario.

The league is targeting “young millennials” in the United Kingdom as its next big fan base, said Sarah Swanson, head of British marketing for the NFL. The league wants to reach ages 18 to 25 primarily, she said, because many people over that age have already decided whether they like American football.

The scene at the NFL’s games in London this fall suggest they are making some progress. Hours before kickoff, the shopping-restaurant district outside Wembley Stadium gets packed with thousands of fans, checking out a league-sponsored tailgate scene, watching highlight videos on a big screen and sipping a beer or two. Many are happy to talk about their passion for the U.S. sport with me, a student reporter visiting for the game.

Fans play catch before the Ravens-Jaguars game at Wembley Stadium on Sept. 24.

There’s no real comparison to the nationwide love of soccer, what the English call football, and the next day it’ll take some effort to find the score in a newspaper, but football American-style is more than a curiosity.

By the time this season ends, 21 regular-season NFL games will have been played in London — 18 at Wembley and three at Twickenham.

This year, two games will be held in each stadium for the first time. Jacksonville got things started with a 44-7 thumping of Baltimore on Sept. 24. NFL games in Wembley average 83,195 spectators, selling out almost every time. The Jaguars’ win marked a new attendance high for the NFL at Wembley, with 84,592.

At the Jaguars-Ravens game, it looked as though every NFL jersey was represented among fans, who came not only from England but also continental Europe (Germany, mostly), in addition to some Americans traveling with their teams. Some went all out, wearing purple wigs and tutus to represent the Ravens. A group of friends that calls itself the “NFL Lads” came decked out in leopard-print tuxedos to support Jacksonville.

While enthusiastic, the crowd’s intensity didn’t compare to that of a game in America, or even an Arsenal-West Brom match in the English Premier League the following night.

It was rare to see fans high-fiving or rivals arguing. The league organized tailgates, but there weren’t the miles of RVs or ubiquitous smell of grilling, as typical in the United States.

Inside the stadium, it was obvious that, while the NFL has developed a following, it is still educating newcomers to the game. Whenever there was a penalty or a play with a rules wrinkle, such as a fair catch, a definition of the ruling appeared on the stadium’s video screens.

It was just one small example of how the NFL is using technology to reach fans, particularly younger ones.
“We often say we don’t compete against other sports for fans,” Swanson said. “What we compete against is people’s time. And when you’re younger, you kind of haven’t decided yet what all your passions are going to be.”

The league has UK-specific handles for its social media accounts. On its Instagram account (@nfluk), which has 147,000 followers and posts several times per day, fans can find scores, photos and clips of big plays.

Even though the NFL’s Facebook page is global, it also posts UK-specific content, such as news about ticket sales for the London games. The league also is launching a Facebook Live highlight show to get more traffic.

One way the league has tried to reach fans is through a promotional video featuring the Miami Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi, a British-born player. In the video, Ajayi tours his hometown of London and attends an amateur American football practice.

“We’re trying to give people who may not know as much about the sport ways to get excited about it,” Swanson said.

When it comes to games like fantasy football and Madden NFL, Britain isn’t all that far behind the United States. This year, the NFL released a simplified version of fantasy football called the “NFL Challenge,” which requires fewer players and allows easier scoring.

The 21-year-old Callum Sheppard, who attends Manchester Metropolitan University, became an NFL fan at age 12 after playing Madden NFL on Xbox. One of the first teams he played was the Patriots.

“I get quite a lot of [flak] because nobody really likes the Patriots that much, which is quite funny,” Callum said.
At English universities and colleges, some students are trying out the game for real. American football is played at more than 90 schools, according to Swanson. To put the number in perspective, there are 130 schools in the United Kingdom, which also includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the level of competition is similar to that of intramural sports in America.

Jacksonville Jaguars fans take photos at the game. The Jaguars won 44-7.

Matt Jesus Sheppard, the older brother of Callum and Connor, plays flag football in Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of BAFA, the British American Football Association.

Flag football is seen everywhere as a less dangerous version of the full-contact game, though concerns about safety, such as the long-term effects of concussions, have yet to become an issue in Great Britain.

Matt, 28, is aware of the risks because he seeks out NFL news. He compared it to the dangers of rugby, a sport that has recently revised its contact rules.

Meanwhile, when Premier League fans watching Arsenal beat West Brom 2-0 were asked whether they like the NFL, their responses were just about unanimous.

“No,” said 17- and 18-year-old boys, giving dirty looks at the mention of the idea.

“No,” said a group of Arsenal fans leaning against the floor-to-ceiling windows near the concession stands.

Some young men even cringed, calling American football “rubbish” and “weird.”

If they did want to watch, they could on BBC and Sky Sports, networks that televise the NFL. But Matt Sheppard, who’s been an NFL fan for 16 years, said the only times he’s seen NFL coverage on BBC were highlight shows in the middle of the night.

Sky Sports airs more than 100 games per year. However, some fans complain that the sports package is expensive and without it, they say, NFL coverage is hard to find.

Eighteen-year-old James Johnson, who attended the Jags-Ravens game, pays £100 (about $135) per month for Sky Sports, which is similar to ESPN. Another group at the Jaguars-Ravens game said they split the cost of the package because it’s one of their only windows into the sport.

“Sky Sports dominates all sports in the UK completely,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have Sky Sports, you absolutely have nothing whatsoever.”

But technology and social media are making the sport more accessible than it’s ever been. According to Swanson, 24 million unique viewers from the United Kingdom saw some NFL content on television last year, a 50 percent increase from the previous year, which had 16 million viewers.

Matt Sheppard admits his two younger brothers are more avid social media users than he is, but he appreciates the NFL attempting to make the American game more accessible for UK fans.

“It’s a lot easier than it was growing up trying to follow this sport,” Matt said.

And now he can’t get enough. The interest even has led to him watching college football on ESPN.

“Football is football,” Matt said. “I have no stake in other teams. Sometimes you just want to watch a game of football.”

Jill Beckman is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.