BBC Super Bowl and a British NFL Team (?)

NFL signs gracing Regent Street in London in 2013. Image Credit:  Tony Webster  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

NFL signs gracing Regent Street in London in 2013. Image Credit: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons cc

     When one thinks of something that is uniquely American, there a few others that spring to mind aside from the sport of, well…American football. Of course, our football was developed from rugby and football (a.k.a., soccer) as it is known throughout most of the world, but it is nonetheless something which we have made and perfected as our own.

     Perhaps even more so, we have developed and perfected the spectacle that is the very pinnacle of that game: the Super Bowl. It has now become an annual American institution that is firmly ingrained into our society and culture – so much so, that one may be mistaken to believe that the Supreme Court would rule it to be unconstitutional if the game was not played. When it is, well over 110 million of us are tuned in to our television sets – and perhaps many more on radio and the Internet – to listen to home-based broadcasters and commentators giving calling the plays and giving their take on the game in action.

     This year for Super Bowl 50, as the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos took to the field of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, I decided to do things a little differently and listened to the coverage delivered by the BBC while watching the television broadcast on CBS.

     As a person who takes a keen interest in the United Kingdom and all things British, I was somewhat anticipating to see what a British broadcast of such a thoroughly American sports event wound sound like. In fact, the three-man team for Beeb featured only one Brit – Darren Flecther, who was the main play-by-play commentator. For color commentary, he was joined by Canadian sports radio host Greg Brady and former NFL linebacker Rocky Boiman, who played for the Indianapolis Colts when they won Super Bowl XLI in 2007.

     So with a Brit, Canadian, and American fronting the coverage for BBC 5 Live, I turned my television volume down and the radio team took over from the on-screen all-American commentators. The experience of listening to the broadcast was quite engaging as the three men did a very good job of keeping me and the rest of the audience informed of what was going on.

     Darren Fletcher certainly seemed to be well-informed about the game, the rules, the teams, the players, and generally just about everything you would expect any American football broadcaster to know for purposes of covering the Super Bowl. It was a bit interesting to see this knowledge on display from a person hailing from a country which revels in the other sort of football, though to be fair, Fletcher did mention that he had covered previous Super Bowls, and so in that sense, it is not surprising that he is well-versed in our football – more so than I can admit of myself! For my part, it was fascinating to listen to a person with a British accent calling the game as it was played, and doing so in that was very British in an American setting. One thing I found particularly interesting was how he enunciated a hard “t” in the name of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in a way that could be described as right and proper, as opposed to many of us in the States who would pronounce Newton with a light or nonexistent “t”.

     He was very much into the game, as were his colleagues, Greg Brady and Rocky Boiman, who helped to provide statistics, expert analysis, and light humor and anecdotes. It was during this broadcast that I could discern a difference between the more sophisticated Canadian accent of Brady contrasted to the grittier American accent of Boiman. At times, it was like a game to figure out which man was speaking, but it became clearer – I believe – towards the end.

     During the broadcast, there was surprise voice which belonged to Martin O’Neill MBE, the manager of the Republic of Ireland national football team. O’Neill, who recently led the ROI to Euro 2016, had brought his whole squad to the big game as treat, and was invited to the broadcast booth to give his commentary on the proceedings in his very distinct Irish accent. He was not as knowledgeable as everyone else around him, but was otherwise engaging during his brief spell in the studio. O’Neill compared Cam Newton to his assistant manager Roy Keane and commented on how American football featured changes in momentum for one team or the other that is not seen in other sports.

San Francisco 49ers vs. the Denver Broncos in London, 2010. Image Credit:  Thomas  via  Flickr   cc

San Francisco 49ers vs. the Denver Broncos in London, 2010. Image Credit: Thomas via Flickr cc

     Indeed, the discussions that took place sometimes focused on the differences between football here and football everywhere else, and how perhaps lessons shared between both. For example, they discussed how American football uses the draft process which allows poorly performing teams to select the best players coming out of American colleges and universities, so as to balance out the playing field and give those lower performing squads a fair chance to improve themselves, and how this is in contrast to the European system of promotion and relegation, which promotes better performing teams to higher divisions within a league and relegates the poorer performing ones to lower divisions.

     There were also discussions about why superior offenses tend to win games for teams in the regular season, but defenses win during the play-offs and the Super Bowl in general. Indeed, for this game, the discussion was particularly apt because neither team well particularly well offensively. Cam Newton of the Panthers – in his fifth season in the NFL – found himself effectively neutralized by the fast defense of the Denver Broncos, while 39 year old Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning battled age and injuries to do just enough to get his team over the finish line, especially in the fourth quarter when they put the game away in the final minutes to make the score 24-10.

     Perhaps because of the defensive struggle between the two teams, it was a very dramatic game with – as Martin O’Neill observed – multiple momentum shifts where one team would find itself on a roll, only to be stymied by its own poor offensive play and/or solid defense from the other team.

     At any rate, it was an exciting game to watch and I felt that the BBC gave proper justice in its coverage of this event, which at least partly gave a British take on this great event and sport. As the great British poet Robert Burns said: “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”

     One thing that was unusual was the lack of commercials during time-outs, and if the Super Bowl is known or anything aside from football, it is the commercials – with some people saying they only watch the game for the advertisements. However, according to Sarah Swanson, the NFL's head of marketing in UK, “advertising has never been part of the Super Bowl experience in the rest of the world”, and the BBC, which has exclusive rights to air the big game in the UK, decided to fill the advertising time by having the commentators and experts explain to the home audience what they are watching on TV or listening to on radio.

     For me, this was a bit refreshing because I do like the commentary, and some ads are cringeworthy and overhyped. For the audiences in Britain however, the actual goal as reported by the Huffington Post was to convert “casual (if somewhat confused) U.K. spectators into loyal NFL fans.”

     On this point, it must be said that the NFL already has a large British fan base, and in recent years, more NFL games have been played in London as the league expands its International Series and demand for more games grows. In the upcoming 2016 season, three games will be played in London – two at Wembley and one at Twickenham – and at least one of those them is already sold out. With this in mind and the home-grown increase in NFL popularity, the inevitable question for the last couple of years has been whether the league will establish a permanent team in the UK’s capital city.

London NFL game featuring the Miami Dolphins vs. the Oakland Raiders. Image Credit:  Daniel  via  Flickr   cc

London NFL game featuring the Miami Dolphins vs. the Oakland Raiders. Image Credit: Daniel via Flickr cc

     This is something on which I have mixed feelings. It is one of those which would be intriguing to see happen, because the UK is like the US in many ways and having a football team would strengthen the already strong cultural relationship between us. Make no mistake, a British NFL team is something in which I would take a huge personal interest to see how it works out and I would probably be among its biggest fans because it would be such a unique enterprise in my favorite country in the world outside of my own.

     However, I do feel that it would be quite unusual for something so American to be permanently established in the UK. Yes, the football developed in Britain is in the United States, but it is a global sport in a way our football is not. Britain already has a firmly-rooted culture in what we call soccer, and it is difficult to see the NFL coming in to coexist with that. The potential fan base for a British NFL team in London would have to display a certain sort or amount of demand and enthusiasm in order to make such an investment worthwhile. Furthermore, there are the logistical issues of transporting the London-based team and the other teams across the Atlantic on a regular basis for home and away games, which will place much stress and strain on the teams and individual players.

     Nonetheless, Chancellor George Osborne is keen on bringing the NFL to Britain on a permanent basis, in part because of the foreign investment that it would bring, and has said that he will assist in whatever way to make it happen.

     For now though, it is probably best to keep the current system the way it is with the occasional games, and I would argue that the league should try out holding games in other big cities of the UK, such as Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester. The NFL is obviously popular in Britain and there is a base of fans who wish to see more, but the league needs to think long and hard before making such a grand leap across the Pond.