When the NFL announced the cancellation of its London series due to the global pandemic, it ended an unbroken run of 13 straight seasons that featured at least one game played at Wembley Stadium. Many are quick to say the NFL’s life in Britain began when the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins on a rainy London night in 2007; but they’d be wrong. The genesis of the games popularity in Britain came a quarter of a century earlier and from an unlikely source.
Sunday Nights on Channel 4
A revolution started on British television on November 2nd, 1982, as Channel 4 made its bow on the nation’s television screens. Their mission was to be different, younger, and more daring than the established BBC or ITV. For the new broadcaster, sports coverage provided a problem: All the major domestic sporting contracts were carved up between the two existing networks. That meant Channel 4 had to look overseas and bought up the rights to a series of sports including Aussie Rules Football, The Tour de France, and even Kabaddi. However, the first and most successful proved to be the NFL.
To introduce the new sport, Channel 4 stuck to its ideals of being alternative. Rather than employ a veteran sports anchor, they opted for Radio DJ Nicky Horne; the idea being Horne would learn about the game as the audience did. They also opted for a provocative time slot; Sunday teatime, a slot usually associated with gentle viewing be it ‘Highway’, ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ or ‘The Antiques Roadshow’. With the time difference, the hour long show could only show highlights from the previous week’s games, but it gave the producers time to boil the week’s games down into a glitzy highlights package.
The show immediately grabbed an audience, and by the time Super Bowl XVII came around in January, the game was a national hit. The fanbase divided largely into two groups: Schoolboys and young men. They would take the game’s growth in two different directions. The kids were armchair fans, and having the games on Sunday meant the NFL was talked about in Britain’s school yards on Monday morning, consequently slowly at first NFL merchandising began spreading amongst the British youth.
Meanwhile, the adults started to form amateur teams, a process made easier by the wider political climate of the 1980’s. With the Cold War still in deep freeze, Britain was home to US Air Force bases. With them came both service teams and coaches happy to help in getting local amateur teams off the ground with coaching.
Over 100 new teams were formed and the first AFL Super Bowl, later rechristened the Brit Bowl made its bow in 1985. Played at Villa Park, it was won by the London Ravens, who defeated the Streatham Olympians 45-7. The Birmingham Bulls, Manchester Spartans, Leicester Panthers and Leeds Cougars were amongst the other teams. While the amateur game has always been a cottage industry, it survives to this day with the London Warriors the winners of Brit Bowl XXXIII.
The Fridge has Landed
While the game grew in popularity through the 1983-84 seasons, it was in 1985 that saw the game truly arrive and provide the game’s first truly transcendent star in Britain: William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry. The Chicago Bears steamrollered their way to the Super Bowl, their smash-mouth approach clearly struck a chord in Britain and when Perry piled into the Superdome end zone in a 46-10 rout of the Patriots, he made himself an icon abroad as well as at home.
Super Bowl XX hit a peak UK audience of 4 million viewers and seeing the spike the NFL decided to step up its efforts. The summer of 1986 saw the first America Bowl take place at Wembley Stadium with the Bears in town to face the Dallas Cowboys. The game was a sellout and although only a preseason match, it extended the game’s reach. Perry wasn’t the only Bear making a name for himself in Britain, with Walter Payton becoming a semi-regular presence on UK sports shows.
It also lead to a merchandising boom as the game’s popularity grew. Official NFL shops started to appear on the high street whilst a thriving print media flourished with weekly ‘First Down’ magazine, monthly publications ‘Quarterback’ and ‘Touchdown’ and Channel 4 got in on the act with its annual Guide to American Football book.
With the popularity of the game on the rise, Channel 4 upped the ante, replacing Nicky Horne with NFL legend Frank Gifford as anchor for the 1986 season. Gifford proved a hit with fans who by now knew and understood the sport. Dan Marino was another NFL star making his presence felt, hosting quarterback clinics and lending his support to the domestic game.
A Vicious Mistake
The 1987 season saw Channel 4 make a major blunder, replacing Gifford with comedy double act the Vicious Boys. The aim was to bring in more young fans by having two enthusiasts anchor the show, it backfired and fans complained about the hosts and the dumbing down of the coverage. Impressively, the brothers were joined by Don Shula for Super Bowl XXII, but Channel 4 recognizing their mistake ditched Vicious Boys.
The America Bowl returned for a third straight year to open the 1988 season and Channel 4 had a new commentary team. The new anchor was Mick Luckhurst, a British ex-NFL man who had played kicker for the Atlanta Falcons. Joining Luckhurst were the show’s long running analyst John Smith (another British-born kicker this time for the Patriots), roving reporter Gary Imlach and Walter Payton, who was a regular guest through the season. The new team fronted a schedule that now included live regular season games and two extended highlights shows per week; a far cry from the initial one-hour highlights show. Luckhurst wasn’t the greatest anchor, but he got the show with its expanded format back on an even keel.
As the 1980’s drew to a close, American football had become Channel 4’s flagship sports show and the game had grown dramatically in the UK, and now the NFL decided to up the ante.
Reign of the Monarchs
The problem with the annual America Bowl was becoming painfully obvious, as a preseason game the stars would only play the first quarter. When the San Francisco 49ers played the Miami Dolphins in 1988 the crowd came to see Dan Marino, for the most part they got Dave Archer. On recalling the event years later Jerry Rice claimed he and the other 49er star players wanted to play the entire game but Bill Walsh refused. Walsh and every other head coach to play the America Bowl were correct in sporting terms, to not risk the health of key players. However, it didn’t serve the event’s main purpose of promoting the sport, what was required was a competitive game played a to a good standard.
In 1991 the NFL came up with World League of American Football (WLAF). London was one of three European cities granted a franchise and the London Monarchs were born. The Monarchs made their home at Wembley and attracted a healthy 41,000 fans for home games, with the players mostly of College Football standard.
The Monarchs posted a an impressive 9-1 regular season to make the playoffs. Among the Monarchs star turns was former London Ravens running back Victor Ebubedike, he was joined by NFL journeyman Quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, wide receiver Dana Brinson and future Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone on the offensive line.
The Monarchs made it to the inaugural World Bowl played in front of 61,000 at Wembley. Gelbaugh threw for two touchdowns as the Monarchs beat the Barcelona Dragons 21-0 to be crowned World League champions. Gelbaugh was named offensive MVP of the season whist kicker Phil Alexander topped the league point scoring charts.
The second season proved more difficult for the Monarchs who fell to 2-7 and more importantly the league struggled to match the successive of its first season, with attendances at Wembley falling to 16,000 a game. The WLAF was suspended and returned two years later, but as the ’90s rolled on the tide was turning and the NFL’s popularity in Britain began to ebb away.
Tears in Turin and the Birth of a Behemoth
A Daily Telegraph article published in June 1990 claimed American Football was now popular amongst British 15-24 year olds than football. It was a startling claim and not without merit, the 80’s had proved a torrid decade for Britain’s traditional sports.
Football had spent the decade mired in hooliganism with many parents reluctant to let their children attend games. In the early ’80s live games on television were rare, limited largely to cup finals and the World Cup, the first live televised league game didn’t arrive until 1983. Rugby Union meanwhile was stuck in a semi professional rut and although the shorter versions of cricket had been developed, the game remained wedded to a five day format with a fanbase centered on diehards and the gentry.
Everything changed in the summer of 1990 at the World Cup. England and Ireland both enjoyed a long run at Italia ’90, England eventually coming within a penalty shootout of the final. It caused a sea change and football was suddenly fashionable, its appeal broadened all across society as Gazza’s tears in Turin made him a national icon. Meanwhile hooliganism was receding and the publication of the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster recommended the creation of all seater stadiums.
Football was always the nations favourite sport but it spent the ’80s sharing rather than hogging the limelight, but by the end of the decade football was getting its act together, helped by increased TV revenue and even the dramatic 1989 title decider. In 1992 the 22 First Division clubs backed by the FA elected to breakaway from the Football League and formed the Premier League.
The glitzy new look division kicked off in August 1992, bankrolled by Sky Sports Subscription TV money. It was notable just how many tricks Sky learned from the NFL, notably Monday Night Football a concept initially ridiculed by sceptics. The clubs quickly jumped on the merchandising bandwagon, the volume of publications increased and club shops multiplied in both size and number. Not everything transplanted as well notably the use of cheerleaders but the Premier League was a hit, England’s successful hosting of the 1996 European Championships underlined just how dominant the game had now become.
Even Channel 4 caught football fever, upon Gazza’s transfer to Lazio in 1992 they secured the rights to cover Serie A, with Gazetta Football Italia superseding the NFL as the station’s flagship sports show. The NFL wasn’t just under siege from one rival sport either, Rugby Union’s second ever World Cup was hosted by England in 1991 and had a similar albeit smaller impact to Italia ’90, within a few years the game was fully professional. Cricket too got a makeover with ever shorter and more TV friendly formats proving popular, again England’s run to the ’92 World Cup Final and increased TV coverage were beneficial.
The ’80s had seen a diverse group of sports share the national spotlight and American Football wasn’t the only sport pushed to the margins in the ’90s with Snooker and Athletics also seeing previously buoyant TV audiences decline.
The sport did try to counter, with the relaunch of the WLAF in 1995 came a Scottish rival for the London Monarchs in the Scottish Claymores. For the 1996 season, The Monarchs signed Britain’s favourite NFL star William Perry. It garnered plenty of buzz and Perry enjoyed his year in London, but by 1998 the renamed England Monarchs had folded. The Claymores enjoyed more longevity, winning World Bowl IV in 1996. However by 2004 they too were closed as the renamed NFL Europe centered its operations in Germany.
Super Bowl XXXII is best remembered for seeing John Elway claim his maiden Super Bowl ring, but it also marked the last NFL game to be shown on Channel 4 as the channel ended its 15 year relationship with the NFL. For the NFL in Britain, the golden era was over and spent the next nine years on the margins of sport in Britain.
Reboot at Wembley
Given the way NFL Europe had died a death in Britain, it came as something of a surprise when shortly after the cancellation of NFL Europe, Roger Goodell announced the first NFL regular season game to be played outside of North America would be at the new Wembley Stadium. Some older fans from the ’80s came out and bought tickets to see the Giants play the Dolphins, but for the most part this was a restart of the NFL in Britain, not a continuation.
Unlike the first era of the NFL in Britain, the second wave was part of a deliberate strategy, rather than a broadcaster’s opportunist move. The NFL is about as likely to overtake the Premier League’s popularity in England as MLS is to overtake the NBA in the US and the days of official merchandise shops in every city centre are long gone, however the access for British NFL fans in 2020 far exceed those of the 1980s. The BBC have a weekly highlight show, whilst Sky Sports have devoted an entire channel to the game and the sport’s most devoted followers usually subscribe to Gamepass.
When the London Series returns in 2021 it’s guaranteed to sell out and talk persists of a permanent London franchise. To take the acid test of notoriety in Britain and ask shoppers on Oxford Street to name an NFL player, the chances are they’d name Tom Brady, but ask them to name four and you’d probably hear the names Marino, Montana and The Fridge. The NFL’s first foray into Britain may be gone but certainly hasn’t been forgotten.