What does it take to be an NFL fan in the UK? Allow me to paint a picture. It's 4am and I am sitting up in bed with headphones on, wearing Chicago Bears pyjamas, clutching a Chicago Bears mascot teddy bear and wearing a Bears blanket as a cape, because when I wear this we don't lose, or at least we don't lose as often.
The blanket isn't working this time. I'm watching the team I love (to the extent that I'm prepared to wear a blanket as a cape), lose. When your team loses, it's bad. When your team loses at 4am, knowing you have to be up in three hours it is far worse. I regularly lie in bed desperately trying to sleep, tormented by visions of Jay Cutler throwing four interceptions, or berating the ref for ruining the season with a mistaken case of pass interference.
Before you know it, its 8am, I'm at work and explaining that American Football isn't simply 'Rugby with pads', and why the length of its games and stop and start nature isn't actually a drawback to people who will regularly sit and watch five days of cricket.
Every season I go through this and I am not alone. Interest in the NFL is as high as it has ever been in the UK. Wembley was stretched to capacity recently as fans of all 32 teams witnessed a closely fought game between two historic giants in the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers. They're set to watch a second game in a few weeks, and the NFL has now expanded its International Series games to three games in London in 2014.
Despite Wembley being a sell-out every time the International series hits these shores, it is fair to say it has what can be described as a cult following, 90% of NFL fans I meet in this country have an exceptional grasp of the game and will happily answer questions about 'the Read Option', or the differences between a '3-4' and a '4-3' defence, just happy to have someone to talk to about a sport that is somewhere just ahead of darts in levels of popularity.
It does however look like its changing. Currently the NFL is about the 7th most popular sport in terms of viewing figures, but between 2006 and 2012 there was a 154% increase in the amount of people watching gridiron and it doesn't stop there. American Football is the fastest growing sport in universities, with 72 teams participating over six conferences. Alongside the university leagues is the BAFA (British American Football Association), who have 50 teams in three Divisions, including TV personality Vernon Kay who plays for the Premier Division's London Warriors. All of this gives fans and people who have a passing interest a chance to learn the sport on a more personal level and in turn increase their knowledge and passion for a sport that is generally only enjoyed by folks in the US of A.
So how do we keep it growing? Word of mouth seems to be doing a decent job of getting people involved. I know from personal experience that I have introduced a number of people to the sport just by getting them to come over and watch some games with me, knowing that quite a daunting game can be explained if they need help. It also helps that the early Sunday games are played at a time when few other UK sports are on. There are plenty of hard-fought games on at around 6pm, and the NFL's own streaming service has opened up opportunities for fans to watch games in their own time. Not everyone will be prepared to to go fully nocturnal, but on-demand and catch-up services help get round that particular challenge.
The UK boasts a dedicated and knowledgeable community of fans producing podcasts and blogs on specific teams, fantasy American Football and the league in general, much like what we're doing with the Gridiron Gentlemen. Then there are the International Series Games, which sees NFL Superstars come over to London and be living breathing ambassadors for the game, and a chance to see the action first-hand.
I don't know what will happen to the silly sport that has me wearing my lucky blanket as a cape, but I know it's only a matter of time before more people in this country are living on three hours sleep on a Sunday night.