Super Bowl caps UK's growing gridiron fever
Millions of Brits expected to watch tonight's final
Few events are as American, create as big a spectacle, or unite celebrities and sport fans as much as the Super Bowl. In the UK, interest in American football, or "gridiron", is at an unprecedented level for today's 46th annual season finale. British viewing figures have doubled over the past half-decade: 4.4 million tuned into BBC and Sky last year, according to America's National Football League (NFL), while an estimated 40 new adult and youth teams have sprung up across the country since US athletes first started playing games in the UK five years ago.
Super Bowl Sunday will even feature a Scottish-born player: the New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, 33, could make history, if his team triumphs tonight, as the first Scot to win the coveted American football trophy. Tynes, who was born in Greenock while his American Navy Seal father was stationed in Scotland, told reporters last week that he was "really excited to represent Scotland in this game". He added: "It's an honour to represent an entire country, and, believe me, I know all of Scotland will be watching and they are all supporting me."
Gary Marshall, chairman of the British American Football Association, which boasts more than 200 teams and 8,000 participants, told The Independent on Sunday: "There has been a huge increase in awareness of the game over the past five years. When it first became popular, during the Eighties, people used to play wearing motorbike helmets with little bits of metal stuck on the side for protection; you couldn't even get the equipment here. Now, multiple suppliers are sending uniforms over and we are seeing a surge in the numbers playing at the highest level."
The growth has not been accidental. In 2007, the NFL committed to expanding the game by bringing regular American season games to the UK. With an estimated 11 million British gridiron fans, it has said it will keep bringing games to Britain up until 2016. Five NFL season games have been played at Wembley Stadium over the past five years; all but one sold out, and the next game will take place later this year. It will be the first of three visits to London by the St Louis Rams, a team owned by the Arsenal majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, made in an attempt to build up a fan base in Britain.
"There is definitely a gathering momentum in the UK," said Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL UK. "One of the reasons is that the fan base is a lot younger. These people are coming to the sport for the first time. There is also the time difference – American football matches don't clash with other sports. It's possible to be a fan of Arsenal and New England Patriots at the same time. It doesn't take the place of indigenous sports – it's an addition."
The largest surge in the sport has been among the young – with almost 70 university teams competing this season, a 50 per cent rise in the past four years. Andy Fuller, who runs the University League, said most students were excited about seeing a "British franchise", something that the NFL has never confirmed. An all-party parliamentary group for the sport was launched last year, with MPs, including its Conservative chairman, Richard Fuller, championing the sport in Britain.
But there are drawbacks. Robin Pierce, president of the London Blitz, the UK champions, said his team expects to lose three to four players each season to injury. "We have had broken legs, arms, torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders and people incapacitated for three or four months," he said. "But the team makes no distinction between men and women. So long as you are prepared to play the game and take the hits like anybody else, you're welcome to come along."
For those who cannot make it to Indianapolis to watch the New York Giants take on the New England Patriots, the NFL is hosting the largest official party outside the host city in London, known as the Super Bash. Nine hundred people will attend, with celebrities including the TV presenter Vernon Kay in attendance.
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