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This Sunday the Vikings play in my hometown, London. This is another step on the road to London having its own NFL franchise by 2022. But, even if this is achieved, there has been ‘American’ football in London before and the road will have been longer than many remember.
Take One – The World League of American Football
During the 1980s, American Football, as it was known, became popular in the UK. Channel 4, a new network dedicated to oddball programming, began showing a weekly highlights package on Sunday nights. In 1986, a decent audience of 4 million Brits tuned in and stayed up late to watch Mike Ditka’s Bears crush the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. When I began watching it around 1988/1989, the host was former Atlanta Falcons kicker Mick Luckhurst, the first British born NFL player. It was popular enough for Panini to release an American Football ‘89 sticker book, which, sadly, I never completed.
The NFL saw an expansion opportunity here. In 1989, it formed the World League of American Football (WLAF). This comprised three divisions, two in North America with summer development teams, and a European division containing three teams; Barcelona Dragons, Frankfurt Galaxy, and the London Monarchs.
In June 1991, I went to Wembley Stadium for the first time to watch the Monarchs play the Dragons in the inaugural World Bowl. The Monarchs had beaten the New York/New Jersey Knights at Giants Stadium to get there. The Dragons had beaten the Birmingham Fire in Alabama to get there. The Catalan side had also posted the Monarchs only defeat that season in the final week. Even so, the Londoners won a one sided game 21-0. I’ve since been to Wembley four times to watch my soccer team. That 1991 World Bowl remains the only win I’ve seen there.
In 1992, it all went wrong. The European teams got hosed and the World Bowl was played in Montreal between the Sacramento Surge and the Orlando Thunder. The NFL suspended the WLAF at the end of the season and professional football in Europe died.
Why did it fail?
Bluntly put, it wasn’t very good. The audience that tuned in to Channel 4’s show saw Steve Young at quarterback for the 49ers. Then, they would turn up at Wembley and watch a team of guys who, with the best will in the world, might struggle to get into decent college teams in the US. The Monarchs’ star quarterback, Stan Gelbaugh, had been selling photocopiers and fax machines before he got signed.*
The lesson was that there was an appetite for NFL in Europe, but only of US quality.
Take Two – The NFL International Series
The NFL seemed to have heeded this lesson. In 2007, they launched the International Series with a view to preparing the ground for a London based franchise of the NFL. Rather then build from the ground up, as with the WLAF, the NFL will simply expand to include London.
It’s gone pretty well, expanding from one game per season to three in the last three seasons and four this season. There is real enthusiasm too. When the Vikings played the Steelers in London in 2013, I thought I’d take my (Minnesotan) wife. I figured tickets would be easy enough to get and phoned two days after they went on sale. I was too late, they’d sold out in minutes.
So, in 2022, the Vikings could be traveling to London for a regular season game or hosting a London franchise at the US Bank stadium. If that team was looking for a name, how about Monarchs?
John Phelan is an economist at Center of the American Experiment.
*American Football’s Forgotten Kings: The Rise and Fall of the London Monarchs by Alex Cassidy is a fun history of the franchise.