While the traditional American pastime of baseball remains mired in existential crises, British sports are booming in the U.S.
The English Premier League recently renewed its American TV rights package at a 250% value increase, prompting headlines not about soccer’s inability to make headway stateside but about NBC’s plans to turn the EPL into the “Next NFL.” Meanwhile F1, led by seven-time champion and global star Lewis Hamilton, set viewership records in 2021 and is likely to do so again once the circuit starts in two weeks. Its own game-changing TV deal is just around the corner.
Even cricket now appears undaunted by baseball’s long run of stick-and-ball supremacy, as big-time backers line up behind soon-to-debut Major League Cricket. It may not be long before Mike Trout gives batsman a go.
Now, the United Kingdom is hoping to turn those new fans into visitors—and investors. Ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, the British public and private sectors came together to launch “The Great Campaign,” an effort to change international perceptions about the country and spark economic growth. Ten years later, the group has launched a “Great Calling” campaign, dropping red telephone booths across New York City this week and hosting a series of immersive events. All told, the campaign’s budget is slightly more than $10 million.
Sports are at the center of the push. The EPL trophy will be in Brooklyn on March 12 for a match-day experience hosted by former pros, while sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and soccer player Rio Ferdinand are among the British celebs taking to social media to dispel misconceptions about their homeland.
What are those stereotypes?
“That we have terrible food, which of course we don’t,” said Emma Wade-Smith, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for North America and Consul General in New York. “That we have a stiff upper lip and that sort of thing, and when you see the passion of our players and our fans… you realize that that is for the birds, really.”
Wade-Smith and Great Calling gathered polling numbers to back up their point. Among Americans age 18-34, 41% believed Brits were “too polite to be serious about competitive sport.”
Soccer supporters may be growing in numbers, but 24% of respondents still said they’d first learned about the EPL from “Ted Lasso,” while only 7% identified themselves as EPL fans. That Gowanus bar that’s packed at 8 a.m. on Sundays may not be entirely representative.
In the wake of COVID-19, U.K. officials hope to get those diehards to Wembley or Old Trafford. As of 2019, the U.S. was third in terms of foreign tourists attending EPL soccer matches (behind only the Ireland and Germany). And visitors who came to the country to watch sports spent 40% more money while there, according to British government statistics. Overall, Americans made up the highest percentage of U.K. visitors in 2019, with 4.5 million tourists (11% of the country’s total).
The U.S. is also the largest foreign investor in the U.K., according to Wade-Smith, supporting over a million jobs. F1, for instance, has been owned and supported by Colorado-based Liberty Media since 2016.
The investment isn’t always looked at fondly—just ask the American owners of soccer clubs who came under fire after supporting plans for a European Super League. But especially now, with renewed questions about limiting the sporting roles played by leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, look for the “special relationship” to grow even more apparent on our fields—and pitches.
“Whether it’s through the athletes and the players themselves, whether it’s through management, and the fans, as well as the financing that sits behind sports,” Wade-Smith said, “I think there’s only positives that can come from more American influence in the UK, and more Brits getting involved in American sports.”