Friday, June 21, 2024

Sharing sports across the Atlantic 

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“I never expected to find communities that celebrated American sports when I moved to the UK”Dik Ng with permission for Varsity

Enjoyed around the world, sport is a constant part of life – be it your village’s weekend football club or televised, multi-billion-pound sports leagues. As exercise and socialisation are fundamental to the human experience, sport has always existed in some form. While sports in the past looked a bit different and had different prizes, all social classes engaged in some type of structured or unstructured sporting event. Various countries and cultures developed events internally, leading to the culture-specific sporting events we know now – think of Sumo, baseball, cricket, surfing, or Muay Thai. At some point, globalisation introduced culture-specific sporting events to the wider world, subsequently inviting diverse competition. Now, we see the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, F1 races, golf, and tennis matches scattered across the globe.

Growing up in a US suburb, I was glued to the TV for every sporting event I could get my eyes on – American and international alike. Oddly enough the American sports with the largest followings seem to have missed the boat. Baseball and American football have yet to ‘go global’ despite being massively popular in the US. Moving to the UK for university in 2020, I operated under the assumption that I’d be watching games by myself, on the 5–8-hour time difference, and that my well-known sports rants would be relegated to calls with friends back home. I couldn’t have been more off base if I’d tried.

“I couldn’t have been more off base if I’d tried”

Similarly to the ways in which US colleges often have rugby teams, or football watch clubs, my university (and most UK universities) had an American football team. Cambridge’s very own American football team, the Pythons, played against Oxford just last weekend. Many students have an interest in US sports if the popularity of annual Super Bowl events is any indication. Beyond the university sector, American sports conglomerates have themselves taken the initiative. American football, baseball, and (pre-pandemic) the NBA have all been brought across the Atlantic for special series, played in London.

From 1993 to 1995, the NBA held pre-season games at the Wembley Arena, reinstating the practice (now at the O2) between 2007 and 2010. In 2011, the first regular-season games were held in London, breaking for the Olympic year and resuming between 2013 and 2019. All were well attended. Ended by the pandemic, these games nonetheless displayed a visible international interest in American sports teams.

In a similar move, the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) also initiated a London series. The NFL’s first London game was held in 2007 at Wembley Stadium, between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants. Most recently in 2023, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium hosted the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars. The two-weekend showcase of the USA’s most popular sport was sold out by kickoff, reaffirming interest and potential in the international market. The stadium – purpose-built for NFL regulations – is now contracted to host NFL games in London until at least 2030.

“the USA’s most popular sport was sold out by kickoff, reaffirming interest and potential in the international market”

Major League Baseball followed the NFL’s lead, hosting their first London game in 2019. By pitting the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox (fierce, longtime rivals in the American League), Major League Baseball attempted to use fan-favorites and bitter rivalries to attract a European audience. However, the league is not inexperienced at garnering fans in unexpected locations. MLB has spent the last 30 years playing internationally, reaching 11 different countries and territories. Going beyond the NBA and NFL’s UK-specific excursions, MLB intends to push into the international market by force. In the 2024 season alone, baseball has already visited several non-US destinations, including the Dominican Republic, Seoul and Mexico City. Further games are planned in London, hosting yet another rivalry game in the UK. Where the first MLB London game hosted American League East rivals, this year sees a National League East showdown, as the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets go head-to-head.

I never expected to find communities that celebrated American sports when I moved to the UK, but I was proven naïve almost immediately. As it turns out, despite the quips about the ‘World’ Series involving only US teams, and American football being poorly named for what it actually is, there are international fans. Die-hard fans, casual fans, immigrant and ex-pat fans; enough to sell out stadiums and fill bars and pubs. Between the corporations themselves clawing at the international sports markets, university students (home and international alike), and sports bars throughout London bringing the best parts of the US to the UK, it’s not a separation from my favourite sports – it’s merely a transfer from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

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