Is North American sport undergoing a renaissance in the UK?

For years, traditional British sport has dominated our back pages, but with the recent boom in North American sport in the UK, could this all about changing?

Ice Arena Wales was bouncing as Cardiff Devils overcame the Sheffield Steelers on Wednesday night.

This weekend saw Super Bowl fever around Cardiff and the rest of the UK, as the Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Then, on Wednesday night, the Cardiff Devils secured their place in the Challenge Cup final, the premier domestic ice hockey competition, after a stunning comeback win against the Sheffield Steelers. North American sport is once again becoming a significant presence in Britain.

The History

It was the tragedy of war that first brought some of today’s biggest sports across from the other side of the Atlantic in a meaningful way. United States servicemen used sports like American football and basketball to entertain themselves in their free time on Britain’s military bases during both wars. British-Canadian athletes were also brought back British shore, leading to a golden age of British Ice Hockey in the interwar years. In 1936, Britain even managed to successfully beat Canada against all odds to become Olympic champions.

Great Britain’s Hockey team at the 1926 European Championships held at Davos, Switzerland.

Following the end of the Second World War, interest in these sports waned as the best players went home. However, the presence of the sports did not vanish. Around 30,000 people were in attendance when teams from rival US Air Bases played an American football game at Wembley in 1952. Moreover, North American sports were also part of the movement that saw television coverage become a major factor in the development of the professional sport. Throughout the 1980s, Channel 4 showed regular highlights from America’s National Football League (NFL).

The establishment of the Premier League and subsequent television deals with Sky Sports and BBC changed everything for UK Sport at the beginning of the 1990s. Huge numbers of paying tv customers meant mind-boggling financial figures in British football. It left its previous competitors, such as rugby, for dead. NFL was dropped from UK television after massive reductions in viewing figures, and sports like ice hockey and basketball were pushed to the fringes, with a multitude of clubs becoming victims of financial ruin.

American Football

In 2007, the UK hosted the first competitive NFL game ever held outside of North America when the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins in front of over 81,000 at Wembley Stadium. Since then, Wembley has hosted 18 NFL games, all-but-one of which have had attendances of over 83,000 people. There have also been games at Twickenham Stadium, and Tottenham Hotspur will host its first NFL game at its new stadium in October when the Seattle Seahawks take on the Oakland Raiders. Outside of London, there has also been talk of Cardiff being the next British city to host an NFL game at the Principality Stadium.

In 2015, Sky Sports secured the rights to over 100 games each season. Coupled with the London Games, the presence of NFL has been increasing. This support was visible across Cardiff on Sunday night, as Super Bowl LII saw the underdogs, Philadelphia Eagles, win their first-ever Lombardi Trophy against Tom Brady and his infamous New England Patriots. Viewing parties for the event took place all over Cardiff, including at ‘Coyote Ugly’, a renowned saloon-style bar on St. Mary’s Street.

Here, Seattle Seahawks fan, Jamie, told me he has been following his team since he saw them win Super Bowl XLVIII on TV back in 2014. “I couldn’t believe the sheer scale of this spectacle. It hooked me instantly… I can’t wait to see the Seahawks in London this year!”

Fans watch nervously at Coyote Ugly as the New England Patriots slip to defeat in Super Bowl LII.
Fans don their favourite NFL jerseys for the Super Bowl at Cardiff’s Coyote Ugly Saloon.

Ice Hockey

Meanwhile, Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) saw attendances rise for the fourth year in a row last season. More than 940,000 spectators attended league matches during the campaign, as South Wales’ very own Cardiff Devils won the league title, and the Challenge Cup in front of a sell-out home crowd.

The Devils will be back in the cup final again this year after overcoming a 4-1 aggregate deficit to defeat the Sheffield Steelers in one of the great matches in recent Devils memory. The final will be held in Cardiff at Ice Arena Wales on 4 March.

“We are undergoing a golden age of ice hockey in Cardiff”, one fan told me at yesterday’s semi-final. “The team are playing some of the best hockey I have ever seen on British ice.”

Cardiff Devils’ Joey Martin ready for the face-off vs. Sheffield on Wednesday night.

The rise means the British league now boasts the seventh highest average attendance across Europe and Asia according to an official study, ahead of nations like Austria and Denmark. With two new additions to the EIHL in Milton Keynes Lightning and Guildford Flames, British ice hockey now also seems to have finally found a more sustainable foundation upon which to build a successful professional league structure.

Furthermore, the Devils also won their first ever Champions Hockey League (CHL) games against Spengler Cup hosts, HC Davos and Swedish Champions, Vaxjo Lakers at Ice Arena Wales, two of the most well-established teams in all of European hockey.

Cardiff Devils showing their support for the LGBT Community with special rainbow jerseys vs. Belfast Giants earlier this season.

Outside of Cardiff, GMB Nottingham Panthers, who visit the Devils this Sunday, became the first ever British team to progress into the second round of CHL, having become the only British club ever to win a European cup honour in the 2016 Continental Cup the previous year. A story that was recently made into a documentary (see below). These results in European competition were unheard of in modern British ice Hockey history.

Another clear sign of the development of British Ice Hockey is the recent success hosting 2017’s IIHF Division 1 Group B, and winning gold in Belfast. The win meansTeam GB now sit just one division behind the sports superpowers, like Canada.


Elsewhere, basketball has struggled as a domestic league since Team GB’s perceived poor performance at the Copper Box in the London 2012 Olympics. This led to a dramatic cut in funding for the sport. Despite this, the sport remains popular at a grassroots level, particularly in urban environments. Special events have proved particularly popular, with crowds of 13,500 at the O2 Arena in London for the British Basketball League (BBL) playoffs last year, and around 10,000 in Birmingham last month to see Cheshire Phoenix win their first ever BBL Cup, both record-breaking attendances.

As with the NFL, America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) has also begun bringing its games over to the UK, eight regular season games since 2011. In previous years, the selected teams to visit have generally seen to have been weak, yet sales for each of the events have been incredible. This year, UK basketball fans were treated to two of the very top teams as the Philadelphia 76’ers were beaten by the Boston Celtics, the most successful team in NBA history. With superstar players, such as Kyrie Irving, on the show, the game sold out in just 2 hours, with the cheapest tickets going for up to £600 on the day.

Bristol Flyers in action against London Lions last month. Photo credit: Graham Hodges.

The Verdict

Traditionally British sports, such as football, continue to dominate British sport. This will not change anytime soon. Yet there has without doubt been a change in attitude nationwide to North American sport. No doubt, the investment of major organisations, such as the NFL and NBA, in the UK market has had a substantial impact. With the success of these occasions on British shores and the continued participation of young people in these sports, it is difficult to see this trend as one that is going anywhere anytime soon.