Why American Football remains American

Is there a route to popularise American Football abroad?

Why American Football remains American

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 19 October 2000

There have been several attempts to popularise American Football in other countries, and almost all have failed. While Americans use the word “Football” to describe their own game and New Zealanders use it for Rugby Football, an English game at which the Kiwis excel, the rest of the world uses it for Association Football, the game Americans call “soccer”.

So, plainly, one problem is the established strength of other games. Association Football is the world’s most popular sport, its World Cup Final attracts more viewers than any event at the Olympics.

For American Football to displace Association Football in any country, especially where it has been established for a century or more, is a tough challenge. Europeans find the American version of the game slow, and the action broken.

The solution surely arises by viewing Association Football clubs not as the enemy but as allies. New sports are difficult to establish mostly because no-one cares. An American Football team established in London would have no supporters. If the London Lions were to play the Manchester Maniacs neither would have a supporter base to call on. In sport, this partisanship is critical. Rare is the sports fan who will watch a game for the joy of the play. Most will cheer for one team and delight if the other is defeated. When France played Brazil in the final of the World Cup viewers from six continents adopted one of the teams for the day becoming, temporarily, supporters of either France or Brazil.

In England Football clubs have tribes of supporters. It is these tribal loyalties that American Football must tap. If, instead of our mythical London Lions and Manchester Maniacs, American Football was contested by Arsenal and Manchester United – both clubs which are more than a century old - then each team would have a phenomenal fan base from day one.

Can brand stretching work in sport? This is a real question. Manchester United, probably the most potent brand in sport and the club that is currently English and previous European champion, once tried to launch a Basketball team, and it was not a success. But loyalty to a Football club is more than brand loyalty. The point about tribal loyalty is not merely wishing to see your tribe triumph but a burning desire to do your enemies down. Manchester United could not go it alone in popularising a new sport in England, but if its rivals – Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle United, and perhaps the leading Scottish clubs, Celtic and Rangers, were to simultaneously launch American Football teams, there would be the basis for a well-supported league.

British Football clubs are among the most avidly supported in the world. The clubs have decades, and in some cases more than a century, of experience in managing sporting brands. Their assets include grounds, which are unused for part of the year, but more important than the physical assets is the loyalty of fans. Television rights are lucrative.

If American Football franchises wish to establish the game in England they should do so in conjunction with the existing clubs. Seek joint ventures with the big clubs in England and Scotland. They are powerful and profitable businesses and can deliver for your game the one thing it lacks in England: people who care about the score.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 19 October 2000

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