By George – Could NFL Really Get Bigger Than Cricket?

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When we upped sticks at The Full Toss, and kissed Maxie goodbye (metaphorically of course!), I wanted to take this blog in a slightly different direction. I can completely understand why people want to keep talking about the cricket media, but I was personally tired of the whole thing.

However, I occasionally come across an article (and it’s often on Cricinfo) that can’t pass without mention. That’s why I simply must share George Dobell’s piece entitled Cricket Is Losing The Popularity Contest today. It doesn’t just hit the nail on the head; it rams it home with all the force of a Lance Klusener bludgeon over long-on (but with twice the grace).

Dobell has written precisely the piece I wanted to write myself. I couldn’t have gone into as much detail, as I have my ‘proper’ job to do and a baby to entertain, but there’s no point anyway now. I can simply refer you to George’s piece instead.

The article discusses the failure of any cricketers to make the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist – a really sad state of affairs after an Ashes victory – and where English cricket is going wrong. It’s a balanced piece, which quite rightly points out the benefits of the ECB/Sky love-in, but concludes that the domestic T20 tournament (at the very least) should be on free-to-air television. I think most of us would agree with this.

Unless some live cricket returns to FTA – a viewed shared by many counties – the game is going to die. And not like a gentleman either. It will expire like an emaciated goat slowly but painfully wasting away in the corner of a drafty barn. Something has to be done immediately.

There’s no point in me repeating the points Dobell raises, but I can add a little fresh context. Today was the first day that NFL International Series season ticket holders could renew their seats for 2016. This always creates a mad scramble for tickets. Just like in 2014 and 2015, there will be three games in London next year: two games at Wembley and one at Twickenham.

I know that NFL isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – I happen to love it because it’s a strategic and complex game with a level playing field – but the sport is expanding rapidly in the UK. The NFL really knows what it’s doing. They’re not always the most benevolent lot, but they sure know how to ram a product down your throat and make the marketing sing.

There have been 14 games at Wembley since 2007 (I’ve been to every one). All of them have sold out – usually weeks or even months in advance. Last year they sold out Wembley on consecutive weekends. That’s two crowds of 80,ooo plus in the space of eight days. What’s more, the teams playing were two of the least glamorous and least successful franchises. Think Derbyshire versus Leicestershire.

The television audience on Sky during this time has doubled. This coverage is supplemented with highlights on BBC (previously on channel 4), and live coverage of both the Wembley games and the Superbowl on FTA television.

Now there’s no way in the world that American football should become as popular as cricket in the UK, but I fear it could slowly happen. The NFL recently claimed that almost 20% of the UK population (14 million) watched at least 3 minutes of NFL on television last year. That’s only a few percent less than watched the football World Cup final. Meanwhile, an NFL survey recently claimed that almost 3 million Brits describe themselves as ‘very interested’ in American football.

The ECB recently released ‘encouraging’ statistics that 2.3 million people attended cricket matches last year, but the NFL attracted 240,000 in just three matches within one month. What’s more, an increasing number of games have been scheduled for the coming years. By 2020 there could be six games played in London between September and December: two at Wembley, two at Twickenham, and two at Spurs’ new stadium.

I appreciate that this is just anecdotal evidence, but I regularly see young people throwing American footballs to each other in my local park. That would never have happened a few years ago. As someone who likes NFL, but cares deeply about cricket, I find the whole thing rather worrying.

Last year, 1.3 million people watched the Super Bowl on Channel 4 (even though it’s on at an ungodly hour). That’s the same number of people who watched the climax of the famous Nottingham Ashes test of 2013, when Anderson had Haddin caught behind after a DRS review. This game, of course, was during the afternoon at the weekend.

One never knows what the future holds, but one thing’s for certain: more people have access to live NFL in the UK than cricket. Unless something’s done, the gap between the two sports will continue to narrow. Worried? If you’re a cricket fan, you should be.

James Morgan

19 Comments

  1. Excellent thought provoking piece James.

    Comparing NFL to cricket is very interesting as I would never really think too.
    If we start with the attendance, on the face of it it’s massively impressive. But is it really? 270,000 visited Wembley this autumn. Or was it 90,000 went 3 times?

    I’m amazed at the 1.3 million figure who watched the super bowl. But is that the game or part of it (I always record the half time show)

    What can’t be disputed is the FTA coverage. 4 games. That’s about 12 hours of (almost) action. If only we could 4 T20 games on FTA television that would be a start.

    • Attendance numbers are obviously pretty subjective, but I think you might be missing a major point. The NFL has sold out a 90,000 seat stadium for games without the biggest teams three times, with tickets priced from £90 upwards. Could any cricket game in England, even in the Ashes, sell that well? There’s a reason why there aren’t any 90,000 seat cricket stadiums in England, and it’s that there isn’t the demand for it.

      The 1.3 million viewers figure for the Super Bowl is I believe the peak ratings for the show, near the start. I haven’t seen anywhere reporting ratings for this year’s Ashes series on Sky, but I would be amazed if they ever managed to reach 1.3 million viewers at any point. Even just comparing reported Ashes series TV ratings, there has been a definite decline from 2009 to 2013 and I’d expect that to continue.

      And as for NFL’s FTA coverage, it also now has a weekly highlights show on BBC2. Is there really not some way to get a county cricket highlights show on TV??

      • If there was only one game of cricket in England every summer then they’d easily be able to sell 90,000 tickets if such a stadium existed. These arguments aren’t comparing like with like. If there were 50 NFL games at 90 quid a pop (or even 19), then they’d be played in front of largely empty stadiums. It’s the scarcity and novelty that drives the sales.

        • Well one comparison you could make is that the Kia Oval (which is in London, like the NFL games) had a total attendance of around 250,000 in 2015. This includes the final Ashes Test and an ODI against New Zealand, not to mention 6 T20s, 8 Championship games and the One Day Cup.

          In three games at Wembley the NFL managed around 270,000.

          • Why would anyone make a comparison between the attendances at the only 3 flagship events played in an entire year, in a 90,000 stadium, in one sport, with a mish-mash of games of varying standard, that make up a small fraction of the national offering, in a 25,000 stadium, in another sport? It’s as meaningless as the comparison between the number of people who watch 3 minutes of NFL in a year with the number of people who watched the Football World Cup Final! If The Oval held 90,000 I’m confident the ECB could fill it for a major match such as a “live” Ashes Test – this is reflected by the fact that when it happens, tickets change hands for multiple times their face value on the black market.

        • If you were truly comparing like with like, you’d be asking if a one off test match in the US would sell out a 90,000 seat stadium.

          Unlikely, I think.

          • I think this is a really interesting question. For a Test match, you may be right – but a comparison between a Test and an NFL game isn’t a good one. Far better to compare an NFL game with a one-off ODI or a 20/20 – a single day spectacle with a result. I reckon a one-off cricket one-dayer between 2 major nations in New York would sell out 90,000, especially if the IPL marketing guys got hold of it (not the ECB’s!) If India were playing, I’m absolutely certain it would. If the odious Tom Harrison’s comments last summer are anything to go by, we might just find out in the next couple of years. I think I’d be a great spectacle.

      • 90,000+ attended the Ashes at the MCG last year. 270,000 over 4 days. A city of 3 million, London is >3 times that size and if you include everyone within say 2 hours travel the population ration of Melbourne to London is >5 times.

        120,000 over 3 days this year to see Aus play NZ in Adelaide. A city of 1 million, with even less people living nearby than Melbourne.

        Sure its not all rosy here – Hobart is really struggling to even half fill the ground and may lose its test but is a city of 200,000 in a state of 500,000.

        Lords and the Oval are balloted tickets. How many tickets are applied for and not received 2, 3 times as much? I managed to get day 4 tickets to Lords in 2013 Ashes, day 3 at the Oval – would have paid for 2-3 days at each if I could obtain tickets but none are available. You need big grounds. You need some cheap tickets. You need kids around the boundary getting their bats signed like you do in Aus. Kids meeting their heroes they have watched on TV. You need to build some big grandstands at your grounds before they turn into Museums.

        Perhaps it happens outside London but kids at the ground is something I never saw in the UK as with scarce expensive tickets who can afford to bring kids along? You need to drive interest in the game. Does anyone bring kids to test cricket in the UK?

  2. Thanks Neil. Judging by the seating plan at Twickenham today (you can see how many seats have been snapped up) I would guess that approx 20% of the 80,000 crowd are season ticket holders. So maybe the figure is nearer 200,000?

    I can’t recall if the cricket figures included people who attend multiple international matches. I think they did. Therefore, we could still very well be comparing like with like.

  3. I wonder how long we are going to be saying this? Cricket is dying and everyone knows the reason why. What’s the point in moaning about it? Its not like anything is going to change, no-one in the ECB gives a flying fuck about cricket.

  4. I know that NFL isn’t everybody’s cup of tea – I happen to love it because it’s a strategic and complex game with a level playing field…

    I used to agree with that. The failure of the NFL to address the issue of CTE has killed my interest in the game; I’m not prepared to watch the systematic chronic infliction of brain damage on a subset of the game’s participants.
    It’s an issue for rugby as well, though on a lesser scale.

  5. Shame on you James for giving space to that ludicrous statistic comparing the number of people who watched 3 minutes of NFL with those who watched the football WC Final! Even I watched 3 mins of NFL a year, because occasionally I idly click on the “best plays” video on the BBC – I love the excitement of a touchdown and find everything else to do with NFL a bore, so this is my preferred format. If I’d missed the last World Cup Final, would this mean I like NFL more the football?

    This article provides a different perspective:

    https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/the-nfl-is-lying-about-its-popularity

    I’m interested that you consider NFL to be “a strategic and complex game with a level playing field”. I’ve heard this from my American colleagues, but whenever I’ve tried to watch a game with them (twice, to be honest) they haven’t been able to get this across to me. I’ve taken Americans to Lord’s in the past and had some success in explaining the nuances of cricket, so here’s an idea : why don’t you organise an EMS! Away Day to a 2016 NFL game in London and you can sit in the middle and explain what the hell’s going on! I’m in…

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