It is that time of year again where the National Football League crosses the pond several times and takes over London, leading to chatter about a possible UK franchise in the future.
From Newcastle to London, Scunthorpe to Manchester, I would follow the Scunthorpe Steelers everywhere for several years. These men would go to work Monday to Friday and then pay for the privilege of playing on a Sunday! There were no multi-million dollar contracts, just hard-working men who fell in love with a game and wanted to emulate those superstars they saw on television each and every week during the NFL season.
It was during this time that the NFL would make an annual trip across the Atlantic to play an exhibition game, but the novelty soon wore off as fans grew tired of seeing star names play a handful of downs only to then spend the rest of the game on the sidelines. The UK fans wanted competitive professional football and they got it – but it would not come from the NFL.
The launch of the World League of American Football in 1991 brought pro football to the UK in the form of the London Monarchs, and the team enjoyed a successful rookie season as it drew an average crowd of over 40,000 to Wembley Stadium and went on to win the World Bowl. The Scottish Claymores became the second professional team on UK shores when they were launched in 1995, but by the end of 2004 both clubs were gone and fans were left in limbo.
Then the NFL made a huge announcement, confirming the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins would go head-to-head at Wembley Stadium in 2007 in the first regular season game to be played outside of North America. Since then it has been success after success with huge crowds descending on the home of English soccer to watch the biggest names in gridiron.
London now plays host to no less than three games per season and that has led to serious debate about whether or not the NFL could host a UK-based franchise. You would think that would please hardcore football fans like me, but that could not be further from the truth.
For starters, I have been a Chicago Bears fan for 30 years now. My daughter is named Payton, for obvious reasons, and my mood for the week can often be dictated by how Da Bears perform on a Sunday. After all of these years, could I really be expected to ditch that team purely because there is a franchise in the UK? I would probably take in a few games just for the chance to see live competitive football, but would I really have that much interest in the team itself? Certainly not.
And then there is the small matter of where the games are played. Playing all eight regular season games in London would certainly alienate a large section of the fanbase who are already forking out large sums of money to attend games. High petrol prices and ridiculous public transport costs can make a single game a very expensive experience, so attending eight games in the space of a few months would be beyond many people’s means.
Finally, I go back to a word I used before, ‘novelty’. Why did the London Monarchs and Scottish Claymores disappear? Losing records led to dwindling interest and ultimately the two teams folded. If a UK franchise is not winning games, will people still be interested in spending large amounts of money to watch a team that loses constantly – especially those that could be described as casual fans? If attendances drop, how long until the UK franchise is shifted back across the pond and the fans on this island are once again limited to watching games on television?
It is always better to have something rather than nothing. Right now we get three games a year and they are played in front of massive crowds with great atmospheres. Is it really worth risking this in the hope that a UK franchise could take off and become a permanent fixture in the National Football League? If it all goes wrong we could end up empty-handed and that would be a sad day for football in the United Kingdom because, quite frankly, we British fans have never had it so good!