American Football in the UK: How Not to Get a Date

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from England. For more, click here.

London - Being your high school’s quarterback might help you nab a girlfriend in America, but it’ll do you little good over in England. “It’s rugby but they wear helmets” says Rachel Matthews dismissively. Jignasa Patel continues: “In comparison to [English] football, [in American football] you don’t get to see the beautiful men running around in their shorts and t-shirts. Instead they wear shoulder pads, tight costumes and head gear –- which in my opinion make them look like triangular wannabe superheroes instead of lean athletic men!”

They have other complaints too:

1) “the game doesn’t flow, too many starts and stops"
2) “it goes on for too long for a game that claims to be an hour long”
3) “the rules are complicated”
4) “the audience is really into wearing giant foam fingers -– which makes no sense at all”
5) “if you are watching a game on the TV you are bombarded with American advertising every five minutes...that is probably why the game was designed to stop and start so much”

Ouch. I played football in high school and strutted about because of it. How could I explain the rush of each snap, how every second counted because a clock was always ticking -- game clock, play clock, quarter clock, timeout clock -- and how could I explain our Super Bowl, where ads are part of the fun, if not the main draw for many. Surely somebody here appreciates it!

Then on the train last week I picked up a copy of Time Out London magazine, and after reading about Dizzee Rascal and Feist, I stumbled upon a tiny listing for an upcoming American football game. I had to go.

It took me about an hour to get to the Crystal Palace Stadium by train. And when I got there, I had trouble finding the stadium. No big crowds, no signs. Thankfully I bumped into a fellow straggler named Gray Young, originally a corner back from Scotland, who was coming to the game to meet up with his mates who play for the East Kilbride Pirates.

“Why do you like football?” I asked naively. But his response was quick, as if he were used to defending the choice. “The hits in football are much harder” he tells me, “and it’s a bigger adrenaline rush….It also takes more thinking. In rugby you get the ball and run straight forward….[There’s] much more strategy in football.” There we go.

The British American Football League is the one community in Great Britain where British football is called “soccer,” and where players spend Sunday at select local pubs where the bartender knows to switch to satellite for his patrons’ special game. It’s a small community of about 6,000 semi-professional players who spend a third of their year traveling all around the isle, on their own dime, to play games against one another before crowds of several dozen spectators lounging on bleachers designed for thousands. But it’s growing by about ten percent per year, its leading coach tells me confidently.

There’s no money in it. Players pay 200 pounds per season to participate. Pads cost money too, and it’s a complex sport so training takes time. Sponsorship is virtually zero, as are ticket sales. In the 1980s American football blossomed in the UK, Jim Messenger, President of the British American Football Coaches Association, tells me. Soccer was in a bit of a lull and the American National Football League invested heavily in overseas promotion, spurring American football. Then came the 90s where soccer rose swiftly again and American football dipped for the decade. But now in 2007 players and coaches feel their fortunes turning for the better. With a bit of public funding and renewed interest from America, the players and coaches I met on Sunday think the coming few years will be theirs.

Could American football take off here? “I’m very glad it hasn’t made it over to the UK in a big way" Jignasa says. I ask her if I can publish her comments and she says, “Of course you can. And if any of them [the American football players]...strongly disagree with my views...they are more than welcome to discuss it with me over dinner!” An open invitation to take her out, boys…Perhaps there’s hope for American Football over here after all.

EnglandAmar Bakshi