How social media is helping the NFL grow in London
Islington doesn’t sound like a natural home for the US-born National Football League, but a couple of fans – aided by social media – are helping build the league’s popularity in London
August 20th, 1920. Fourteen American Football teams create the American Professional Football League, the first league of its kind. Bringing together professional teams, a rulebook for all and stringent stipulations over how players are signed, the APFL set a precedent for organised professional sport.
Fast-forward to 2013: 32 teams take part across the United States in what’s now known as the National Football League. 17.3m people attend games every season, whilst domestic broadcasters will pay nearly $40bn for the TV rights over the next eight-year period. The league makes an annual revenue of $9bn, split between all 32 teams, and 30 of those 32 feature on Forbes’ 2013 list of the 50 most valuable sports teams. It’s the most lucrative sports league in the world by a country mile.
Over the last seven years, London’s been taking a slice of this sporting economic pie. Since 2007, the International Series has brought regular season games to Wembley Stadium, with 2013 seeing two games, and three planned for 2014. With attendance upwards of 80,000 each year, and tickets costing anywhere between £35 and £150, each game makes over £5m, and that’s before you factor in the £30 T-shirts and the infamous £9 Wembley pies.
Why so popular now? Part of the answer might be found locally – in Shoreditch’s TechCity. Facebook, Google and Twitter, who all have offices near Old Street, play their part in boosting a new generation of American Football fans.
Back in early 2011, Cutteridge, alongside friend and fellow NFL fan David Dickson, created the blog, giving fans of the niche game an insight into the football-related drama and carnage every American household sees on a weekly basis.
Soon after launch, the blog took a step back and it swiftly became a social media-orientated site, using Facebook and Twitter to post news, views and live updates and to interact and engage with other NFL fans.
“It all started from Dave and I not wanting to alienate our personal non-NFL followers on a Sunday night, and it spiralled out of control.”
Now at the forefront of regular British NFL coverage, Any Given Sunday Night has created a captive audience, but Cutteridge doesn’t see it ending there.
“We’ve created our own niche, but we still want to get bigger and better. It’s totally down to social media – we had the @UKNFL handle before any iteration of our website, and the live in-game coverage is the crown jewel of what we do and the way most people interact with us.”
TD 49ers! The San Fran D gets in on the fun and brings a fumble back to the house for 6! It’s 42-10 San Fran and the Jaguras are D..U..N DUN
— AnyGivenSundayNight (@UKNFL) October 27, 2013
However, it’s not as simple as sending out a couple of Tweets with the scores, or relying on other users to share Facebook statuses. With an ever-growing game, there’s even more pressure on the site to ensure that no fan gets left out.
“It’s pretty hard work, especially the 6pm slot. Retweets and favourites happen by themselves but there’s a tricky balance with mentions. We’re really keen to get people involved – replying and retweeting them – but we’ve also got loads of action and scores going on, and we’ve hit the tweet limit a couple of times.”
Having spent some time chatting with Cutteridge, I notice he has barely mentioned the use of Facebook, which seems intriguing, given the potential user base of 1.15bn users. It seems the AGSN page hasn’t seen an awful lot of love for a few years, but Cutteridge says it was Twitter that appeared at the right time for fans, rather than Facebook, to utilise and interact with other like-minded people.
“Facebook only lets you talk to friends, whereas Twitter allows you to find new people and make those friends. With Twitter, suddenly it’s quite cool to be into NFL again, and that hasn’t happened in years. I don’t think social media has created that, but it’s certainly facilitated it. NFL UK have to take most of the credit, they’re doing a good job.”
And it is his last point that displays just how much the game has grown in the UK. Back in 2007, the NFL decided that a rejuvenated, reinvigorated UK-based office was necessary to aid the international growth of American Football. Using a small team of people, NFL UK maintains a regular social media presence, but also holds annual events, including the International Series Fan Rally, Thanksgiving Thursday and the Superbowl Tailgate Party.
Last weekend, the Fan Rally saw over 45,000 fans enter Trafalgar Square, where both the San Francisco 49ers and the Jacksonville Jaguars [the teams facing each other in the second International Series game this year] were represented. It was another opportunity for more people to come and find out about American Football and the NFL, and it is events like this that will create a bigger fan base.
But the big question over the past few months has been that of a London franchise: with this new-found group of UK fans, is it time for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to make the decision to move a team to the British capital permanently? Cutteridge certainly thinks so.
“I’m warming to the idea. It doesn’t need to sell out 80,000 a week – 65,000 would still make it one of the bigger teams, and more importantly, make it viable. And while fans already have their own teams, some would switch allegiance, some would have them as a second team, but either way, I know plenty of people who’d be here every week.”
Playing the game
It’s not just the local tech scene that’s growing the NFL, though: amateur teams nearby are reaping the rewards of those who have taken an interest in the game. Local American Football team London Blitz now run a full senior team and three junior teams, and their growth has culminated in becoming national champions four times in four years.
University teams have also seen the benefit of continued TV coverage and growing interest in the sport, and City Sentinels Head Coach Adam Lillis believes this is only a good thing.
“When I took over as Head Coach we had a roster of 20 players, and in eighteen months I’ve already gained another 40 or 50 on top of that. It will keep growing, and I want to see them develop and push for the chance to play in America.”
Lillis’ player recruitment drive at the start of this season was, as he put it, “90% Facebook, 10% email”. The technology available is affecting all aspects of the game, and that can only be positive.
But the growth in American Football wouldn’t have been possible without the likes of Cutteridge, who in turn has relied on new technology.
“To be honest, if it wasn’t for social media, I wouldn’t know Dave and the site certainly wouldn’t exist.”
Are you a NFL fan or player? Please share your views below. Follow Adam Mills on Twitter: @AdamMillsUK.