American Football in the UK — a sport on the up?

By Joshua Modaberi
London Blitz

The London Blitz American Football team (Photo courtesy of London Blitz)

American Football has seen a resurgence in the United Kingdom over the last few years.

The NFL has sold out Wembley Stadium on the three occasions it has staged the annual International Series and is on course to do so again as it comes back to London in October for the fourth year running.

The sport has also seen its popularity increase at universities up and down the country with many founding their own teams.

But, as some may not know, the UK also has its own version of the NFL: the BAFL or British American Football League. Team from across the country in three divisions compete for the British version of the Super Bowl known as the Brit Bowl.

Over the last four years the top two teams in the BAFL have been the Coventry Cassidy Jets and the London Blitz. The latter are the current champions and this season, for the first time, they will be competing in European competition.

The Sport Review caught up with London Blitz Chairman, Robin Pierce, to find out more about the British version of the sport and get the low-down on the up-and-coming season.

What was it that first got you interested in American Football and then to become chairman of a team?
I first saw a game in 1978 when I was in Fort Lauderdale with my ship, as I was in the Royal Navy at the time. Myself and a few friends were taken to see a college game. At that time I thought that if the game ever came to the UK I’d want to play.

Well, in 1983 Channel 4 started showing games on TV, and that was the catalyst needed to get people to form teams. I joined the Windsor Monarchs, so I was involved right at the beginning. I subsequently helped to form the Slough Silverbacks, becoming the Vice Chairman as well as being a D line starter.

I became disillusioned with the politics of the sport in 1990. There was so much wrangling and in-fighting, with various people trying to get rich off a sport that was still in it’s infancy; and as a result, I quit altogether the following year. It was in 1999 that a friend on mine asked if I would be interested in joining the Olympians as a coaching assistant. I considered it, but I felt that joining the club that, at that time, were the National Champions, wouldn’t be a challenge to me, whereas London Blitz, at the same time, was a team that was struggling, and therefore a big challenge. I became the club Vice Chairman in 2002, and the Chairman the following year.

With a lot of very able assistants, and the best coaching staff in the country, we’ve taken London Blitz right to the top of the sport. We are now the first choice for athletes who want to play the top level of the sport in this country. The challenges to get to this position were huge, not the least of which was in sorting out the parlous state of the club’s finances.

Neil Bowles, the previous Chairman began this process with wise fiscal management. He saved the organisation from financial collapse, and for me, it was a matter of picking up the baton when Neil had to leave the club because of work commitments. These days, the club runs at a small profit, which is always invested in improvements in one way or another. I have to say, being the Chairman is like holding down a second full time job, and without the support I receive from all my assistants, it just couldn’t be done.

You play your home games at the athletics stadium in Finsbury Park. What are the attendances like both home and away during the season?
Attendance is hard to gauge as we haven’t been charging admission fees. Going on the amount of burgers we sell, I’d say the figure must be between 200 – 300. Away games don’t seem to be well supported, so maybe we are more fortunate than most of our opposition because of our location, our stadium, and our efforts at attracting support.

I became disillusioned with the politics of the sport in 1990. There was so much wrangling and in-fighting

Has the NFL International Series games at Wembley stadium over the past three years had an impact on the British version of the game?
It has made the UK public more aware of the game, but I’m not convinced that this has resulted in more people watching the UK games. We have seen a small increase in recruitment, but this, at least in our case, could be down to our success over the past several years. If you are looking for a team to join as a new recruit, do you pick a team that is successful, or a team that is in the lower divisions? I guess that depends on how ambitious you are.

There has been talk over the last couple of years that there could be an NFL team based in the United Kingdom. Do you think this could happen and would it be a good or bad thing for the BAFL?
I’d never say never, but most of all the NFL is a business, and a hugely profitable one. There would only be a franchise in the UK if it made sound financial sense.

Over the last four years the London Blitz have made it to the Brit Bowl playing the Coventry Cassidy Jets on three occasions and the London Olympians once, with you winning twice and losing twice. Do you think it will be the same two teams in the Brit Bowl for a fourth season or are there some other teams we should be looking out for this season?

We lost to the Olympians in 2006, beat the Jets in 2007, lost to the Jets in 2008, and regained the title in 2009. This year I fully expect our biggest rival will be the London Cobras, but there will be no easy opposition.

This is going to be your first season playing in European Competition. What are your expectations in Europe for the team?
We hope to do well, and our coaching staff believe we can make the final if we play our best football.

What is the English league like compared to other leagues in Europe like Germany and Spain?
We may find out this year! Both Spanish and German teams have money to spend on imports, whereas the game in the UK is meant to be strictly amateur, so we will always have problems playing against semi pro clubs when we remain amateur. This situation is likely to continue for a long time, as there’s no money in UK Football. We certainly don’t lack talent in the UK, but money can pay for ex NCAA players, better quality coaches, good facilities, and so on. Most UK teams don’t even have a decent football field of their own, so we can’t compete on anything like equal terms.

Sport in the UK is grossly underfunded in comparison to other countries in Europe I became disillusioned with the politics of the sport. Any athlete, in pretty much any sport, succeeds in spite of the system, rather than because of it!

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