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October 23, 2013
How the NFL replaced God (for a certain generation, anyway) in Britain

UKSmith.jpg

This story ran in The Bee on Oct. 29, 2010, the last time the 49ers warmed up for a game at London's Wembley Stadium. They ended up beating the Broncos, 24-16.

LONDON - On Sunday, the 49ers will run onto the Wembley Stadium field and be greeted by thousands of rowdy, red-clad British fans, a following that belies a decade's worth of rubbish performances and a 1-6 record this season.

The 49ers may be 31st in the league standings, but they rank third in the hearts of British NFL fans behind the Patriots and the Dolphins. How can a bad team have such a big backing? To understand how the 49ers became a British favorite, you have to rewind to 1982.

At that time, Brits had only four television channels. The fourth - aptly called Channel 4 - began under the direction of Margaret Thatcher's government, which wanted more alternative programming.

One of those alternative shows was a strange sport that Americans called football but that was much closer to rugby. It aired on Sunday evenings and was a replay of the top NFL game from the previous week.Only an hour long, it edited out all of the stoppages - timeouts, injuries, etc. - from the American broadcast. It also had little competition for young male viewers.

In Britain, 6 p.m. Sunday is known as the "God Slot." Two of the other channels at the time aired religious programming. The third - "Antiques Roadshow." For a young boy at the time, the choice was either finish your homework or watch American football.

Karl Baumann was part of the latter group. "As an 8 or a 9 year old, it took me a season to work out the rules of the game," said Baumann, who's now a producer for NFL coverage on Sky TV. "But the reason I watched it was because I didn't want to watch what else was on, and I always had a big thing for American culture - American cars and stuff like that. And that's how it started."

Said Henry Hodgson, who works for the NFL's UK division: "It was either watch people sing hymns in a dreary church or watch American football."

That programming decision launched a mini-boom. The Bears and Patriots faced each other in Super Bowl XX in January 1986. More than 3 million Britons tuned in, even though the game lasted into the wee hours on a school night.

After that, the sport's popularity began to diminish. The 1990s brought a swell of national pride and a devotion to anything British. The successful Premier League, England's top soccer league, also began in 1992. But a segment of the population remained hooked on American football and loyal to the first team that captured its heart. As a result, Britain has an awful lot of 49ers fans in their 30s today.

Philip Wainwright became a fan at age 14 because, as he said, the 49ers' helmet looked cool.
"At the time of choosing the 49ers, I think the Rams were the top of the division, and I actually thought, 'Well I don't want to choose the best team because it's a bit obvious,' so I chose the next one in the (NFC) West," said Wainwright, 37, of Chapel-en-le-Frith, England. "I was a little naïve that they had already won two Super Bowls."

Mark Booth, 31, of Bristol, was introduced to the sport by a cousin when he was 6 or 7 years old. "The game showed on TV that week was the Niners vs. the Cowboys, and I decided that whoever won I would support," Booth said. "The Niners won, and that was the beginning of my support. My dad chose to support the Bills as they were rubbish but had a young quarterback by the name of Jim Kelly. We became avid followers."

Football's popularity hasn't returned to 1980s levels, but it is rising again. The NFL's broadcast ratings here are up 50 percent from 2009, and the London-based game hasn't been played yet. The league sent out 605 media credentials, only a small fraction for American journalists.

On television, the emphasis is now on live events, and the NFL has a strong online following. The hope is that creates a new generation of NFL lovers abroad.

Elliot Trevithick, for example, became interested in the NFL while playing Madden NFL on his Xbox in college. "I didn't want to just go for the most successful teams at the time, but neither did I want to go for a notoriously boring or poor team with no history," Trevithick said. "The 49ers appealed to me because of their status as a fallen giant - a fantastic history but underperforming in recent years."

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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