On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs play the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL’s showpiece annual event; the Super Bowl.
In recent years, the Super Bowl has become a bigger and bigger deal in the UK – people are having watch parties at home, and more and more bars have been taking advantage of the UK’s 24-hour licensing laws to stay open into the early hours of Monday morning and put on big Super Bowl events.
There are also multiple ways to watch the game in the UK, with both ITV and Sky Sports, along with NFL Game Pass, showing live coverage, while you can also listen live on both BBC Radio 5 Live and TalkSport.
It is worth exploring then why the NFL has grown in popularity so much in the UK in recent years, and what MLB can learn from this in order to help grow baseball’s popularity in this country too.
In this article, Josh Edwards and I will both give our take on what the NFL has been doing in this country, and how MLB can translate those lessons to grow its fanbase in the UK.
Much of the NFL’s lure and growth in the UK has its roots in strong foundations going back decades. When Channel 4 first made the decision to air American Football games in November 1982, as well as sumo wrestling, they were widely derided for the gamble (Sumo was later dropped).
But for the NFL, it was a truly seminal moment, even if no-one really knew it at the time. From these roots blossomed a loyal and knowledgeable UK fanbase, spawning generation upon generation of gridiron fanatics, whose love for the game grew as the action became increasingly more easily accessible in the internet age. No more driving to the cliffs at Felixstowe to try and catch games on AFN (American Forces Network) radio, as my dad was forced to do.
Additionally, the NFL was good at utilising all of its assets, including the profile of players who had transcended the game and the Atlantic. For example, when William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry appeared on Wogan in 1986;
MLB can learn from this. If the stars are amenable, get them airtime abroad. However much we like to think podcasts and websites like Batflips are persuasive and informative, and help people become accustomed to a complex and initially alien sport, it’s hard to trump true star power.
Another part of the NFL’s success has been striking a deft balance between capitalizing on existing fans and attracting new ones. This is not easy. I am quick to critique Sky Sports’ default to what seems like basic analysis (it has got better, to be fair). For the veteran viewer, ‘NFL for dummies’-style coverage can be frustrating, but I’d like to hope most fans are aware of the necessity; both football and baseball are incredibly complex games which take years to even partly comprehend confidently. MLB will need to work hard to strike this balance as it looks to expand.
Ultimately, baseball in the UK is in a more nascent stage of its development. It doesn’t have the luxury of decades of terrestrial and cable television broadcasts. But it can and should learn from the NFL, if the appetite is there. Commissioners of the NFL Roger Goodell, and Paul Tagliabue before him, saw the opportunities and pumped money into sponsoring and marketing fan events held here for years. Over 15 years ago, I attended a Super Bowl party at the Millennium Dome (now called The O2 Arena) hosted by Trevor Nelson and with a performance at half time by The Saturdays.
Maybe one day MLB will be in a position to run something similar.
A lot of the NFL’s resurgence in the UK in recent years has been down to visibility; the terrestrial broadcasters Channel 4, then the BBC, and now ITV and Channel 5 have used their rights to showcase the NFL properly with weekly magazine and highlight shows since 2014, and this has meant the product is getting in front of more UK eyes more easily as it’s on free-to-air TV rather than people needing a subscription to Sky and its dedicated Sky Sports NFL channel. Long-time fans and potential fans having ease of access to the product cannot be overstated in my view.
To this point, at least one regular season game has been played in the UK every season since 2007 (apart from during the pandemic), and this too has also played a significant role in boosting the NFL’s popularity on these shores. Not simply because it is a chance for UK fans to see the NFL live and in-person, but also because the games are regular season games. This means the sides are playing a game that actually matters on UK soil rather than a meaningless out-of-season exhibition game. In this sense, MLB are 100% on the right track by ensuring the games they have played at London Stadium are regular season games too.
Finally, there is some validity to the argument that the growth in the NFL’s popularity is also partially because it’s more suited to the UK market – it’s one slate of games each weekend (Thursday-Monday) – much like the Premier League or the Six Nations – as opposed to Major League Baseball, where regular season games are being played every night over the course of a 162-game season. The same is also true of the NBA and the NHL, and their 82-game regular seasons, as well.
Similarly, how a NFL season is decided also lines up with the UK’s sporting tradition; the NFL leads up to the Super Bowl – one showpiece game between two sides played at the weekend that people gather together to watch – much in the same way that a football/’soccer’ season in the UK leads up to one showpiece occasion – the FA Cup Final – as opposed to baseball, where it is a seven-game World Series played over the course of two weeks.
In closing, it would be folly to suggest that MLB should fundamentally change its game structure to lead to one showpiece deciding game – the World Series is embedded in US culture, and both broadcasters and the league make a lot in advertising and sponsorship revenue due to the champion being decided over multiple games. Money rules in the USA, and so, that structure isn’t going to change.
That is not to say that MLB can’t learn from the NFL though. For all the criticism NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has received, league revenues are up under his stewardship, and a lot of that is down to the growth in the game internationally in countries like Germany and Mexico, as well as the UK.
While MLB can’t build its popularity in the UK overnight, one thing the MLB can do is make it easier to access the product in other countries. People would be far more likely to watch a baseball game in the UK, for example, if there was a terrestrial TV deal in place. Instead, access to MLB games on TV in the UK sits behind a BT Sport paywall, and that surely is impeding any potential growth in popularity baseball could experience in this country.
In that sense then, if the league wants to grow its reach in the UK, Rob Manfred and MLB may need to take a long-term view the next time the UK TV rights are up for negotiation and potentially be willing to accept a lower price from a terrestrial broadcaster that is prepared to give baseball a shot on the assumption that it will then lead to more eyes on the product, ultimately leading to greater merchandise sales and increased appetite for more London Series games down the road.
Featured image – Brendan Hoffman for Getty Images.
Brett is BFN’s Oakland Athletics contributor, and can be found on Twitter @BrettChatsSport.
Josh is BFN’s New York Mets contributor, and can be found on Twitter @Joshwa_1990.