What’s NFL fandom like in the UK? BBC Sports’ Osi Umenyiora talks about the future of the league abroad
The Seahawks are taking their first trip across the pond, but what kind of fan environment can they expect when they get there?
Former New York Giants defensive end and two-time Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora, now a BBC Sports personality, joined John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle Thursday to preview the match between Seattle and Oakland and the current state of NFL fandom in England.
“Walking down the street now, because of the shows that we do and the games we do on BBC, people recognize us,” Umenyiora said of the growth in NFL popularity in London. “They talk about us and they stop us to talk about the games. When you actually go to the games, you see actual fans of a particular team there, not just a whole bunch of different jerseys. When you come here, you’re going to see Seattle Seahawks (fans) and Oakland Raiders (fans). And that’s pretty much going to be the main jerseys you’re going to see in the stadium. Allegiances are being drawn. Fans are actually fans of particular teams, and all the games are sold out. The interest is at a very high level.”
The league has been hosting regular season games in London since 2007 and hopes to have a franchise based in England – either by expansion or relocation – by 2025. Umenyiora told Clayton that while not all details have been ironed out, he predicts the league will accomplish that goal within the next five to ten years.
Fan interest has grown over the last decade. Umenyiora says English fans have taken to the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins in particular, though interest in all London games has spiked, with ticket sales up 333 percent from 2013. More than 80,000 fans will watch the Raiders host Seattle this week – about 10,000 more than CenturyLink Field at full capacity.
The Seahawks and Raiders were set to open this year’s series of London games at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium; however, with the opening of the venue delayed to late 2018, Seattle will instead face the Raiders at Wembley Stadium. The venue traditionally hosts soccer matches, but Umenyiora said officials have tailored it to better suit NFL teams.
“I played in the first game here in 2007 and it rained and I was slipping and sliding everywhere,” Umenyiora said. “When I came again with the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, it rained then too but the field was much better. They’d adjusted so the grass was a little bit thicker, not like a soccer pitch where they cut the grass really thin so you can slide. So I think even if it does rain (thus Sunday), the field is going to hold up.”
Umenyiora is particularly interested to watch Seattle – most especially because he’d like to remind its head coach of a particular phone call. Umenyiora recounted a story from his playing days, after the London native and Super Bowl champion ended his career with the Giants in 2013.
“I got a bone to pick with Pete Carroll,” Umenyiora said. “I’m gonna tell you what happened. First day of free agency, I’m talking about as soon as I woke up that morning, I get a call from Pete Carroll. He’s like, “Listen, we are very, very interested in signing you, we love you as a player, I think we’re going to bring you in.’
“So I’m like OK cool, I’m really excited about this. And literally within an hour or two I’m watching ESPN and on the ticker on the bottom it says: Seattle Seahawks have signed Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. I’m like, what? Literally an hour after I got the phone call they had already signed those two defensive ends,” Umenyiora said with a laugh. “So I knew that wasn’t going to happen anymore, but I still have a bunch of love for Pete Carroll, man, he’s a great guy and a great coach.”