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Britain’s Shallow Flirtation With NFL

This week’s news in the Bay Area was dominated by highs and lows: The S.F. Giants World Series victory and parade, the mid-term elections, and the lenient sentencing of a BART officer for killing an unarmed man, and the demonstrations which followed. I steered away from these hot topics to interview The Bay Area Brit Foreign Correspondent, Benjamin Addington, after last week’s San Francisco 49ers game against the Denver Broncos in London. I was curious about the NFL’s impact over there.

How popular was NFL when you were growing up in England?

We had the merest glimpse of it on a show called World Of Sport, which would occasionally live up to its ambitious name by offering scant highlights, but it was impossible to gain any understanding of the game from a three minute report which devoted as much time to the cheerleaders’ legs as it did to anything that happened on the field of play. 

The distraction of shiny, pretty things. The Cheerleader: An unequalled symbol of American glitz.

Ah, the distractions, got to love them. So when did things start to take off?

In 1982, Channel 4 created a one-hour highlights programme that spawned a generation of devotees with a proper understanding of the sport. The opportunity to examine the game closely revealed a complexity that could scarcely be guessed from the World Of Sport excerpts. It was as amazing as discovering that a cattle stampede is a meticulously choreographed event with each cow’s movements determined by a carefully constructed plan.

Do you think the fact that the games are 3 hours long affected its popularity?

Although American Football now receives in-depth coverage on Sky Sports which shows three games live every week, for many fans, the Channel 4 days were the golden era. And yes, one hour of play and two hours of TV commercials might fly in the U.S. but not here.

So how popular are the two teams that lined up against each other last weekend?

Two of the most dominant teams from the Channel 4 highlights period were the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos and it’s hard to say just how excited the fans would have been if Joe Montana and John Elway had led their respective teams over to London for a regular season match in their heyday.

Wasn’t the game at Wembley Stadium well attended?

The relative paucity of the 2010 Niners and Broncos didn’t stop an enthusiastic crowd of 80,000 plus from showing up, but it was pretty evident that the majority of fans were more excited by a glimpse of Jerry Rice and Roger Craig on the sidelines in their ambassadorial suits than they were by the opportunity to see the current crop of players duke it out for the number one pick in next year’s draft. 

Wembley Stadium: Hallowed ground for English football fans.

It seems the British and Americans will never agree on what “football” really is.

American Football has been marginalised by its television coverage.  Only a small proportion of British viewers pay the subscription fees to watch the sport, and its audience is tiny compared to those who watched the Channel 4 highlights. Even though Sky’s broadcasts are infinitely better than those ancient clips on World of Sport, the latter had ratings that Sky can only dream about.  It turns out that those cheerleaders had legs…in more ways than one.

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