Despite what can only be described as a trying past two decades for the Miami Dolphins, the expansion of the NFL overseas has resulted in the fan base growing astronomically. While the Dolphins may not be one of the most supported teams in terms of numbers in the US, internationally they have generated a substantial fan base, all full of die hard Dolphins fans who can not get enough of the aqua and orange.
With the introduction of the new 17 game regular season beginning in 2021, NFL owners have also approved a new format for the International Series games. Starting in 2022, atleast four games will be played internationally. The new system will see four of the 16 new AFC-NFC extra gameweek matchups moved to to overseas venues. The new approach will ensure that the NFL’s objectives of tapping into markets outside of the US are fulfilled, while ensuring that teams and fans do not lose home games as a result.
Unfortunately, there is a very small part of the US fan base for the Dolphins and the NFL in general, who sit there on their high horse looking down at international fans. Fans of which maybe haven’t supported the team since the 70s, are new to the sport, or those who have not been to games at Hard Rock and are therefore unworthy of the true Dolfan status and are presumed to not know what they are talking about. As an international fan myself, I take deep offense to such assumptions. It may therefore be a surprise to some, as to how passionate and committed us fans are. Let us not forget the Super Bowl kicks of at 11:30pm, the first pick in the Draft is not until 1 am in the UK, while even later in continental Europe.
The UK has been the pinnacle of the NFL’s efforts to expand overseas. Since the beginning of the International Series in 2007, the NFL has achieved consistent growth, and now has more than 13 million fans in the UK. The game has expanded from showing around 10 minutes of highlights per week in the early 80s, to now having is own dedicated channel on Sky Sports showing around the clock coverage of the league. A total of 31 of the 32 teams have featured in London over 28 games, played across three different stadiums, hosting 2,226,356 total fans for an average attendance of 80,941 (all sell out games). In comparison, the average attendance of a game hosted in the US is only 67,042.
In the UK, the fan base has changed drastically. In the early 80s, many thanks to Dan Marino, the Dolphins were able to begin to establish a solid fan base, along with Washington, Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers. Fans are reminded of these days regularly as the vintage fashion trends that sweep the nation, see the return on 90s Starter jackets, spellouts and the customary vintage jerseys. The Dolphins remain in the top 3 or 4 most supported clubs in the UK which is constantly growing following the rise in popularity of the sport, and the fact that the Dolphins have been a consistent presence in the International Series games.
The Dolphins first came to London in 1988 in American Bowl pre-season game against the 49ers, featuring Marino, Montana, and Young in front of a capacity crowd of 70,000 in the old Wembley stadium. The fins emerged victorious 27-21. The Dolphins returned in 2007 for the first regular season game to played outside the US. Miami lost 13-10 to start the season 0-8, the rest of the season we will not mention. However, all can be forgiven as the Giants later went on to end the Patriots hopes at the perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.
It would then be seven years before the Dolphins would return to London in 2014, where they defeated the Oakland Raiders 38-14, a game of which I was unable to get tickets. Rather it seems that the powers above wished for me to endure a 27-14 loss against the Jets in 2015, whereby Ryan Fitzpatrick proceeded to torch the Dolphins secondary on one of the first plays of the game. Unfortunately for me that game was the highlight of my experiences of watching the Dolphins in London, as what followed was a 20-0 shutout against the Saints in 2017, a game that solidified my true feelings towards Jay Cutler. It is hoped that the Dolphins fare better in London this season in the week 6 matchup against Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before the International Series games, in good British fashion fans meet up in the pubs and bars surrounding Wembley for charity meet ups organised by Fins Nation UK Fan Club, where over 400 fans descend from across the world. The UK fan club organise annual weekends where fans travel across the pond to attend a pre-arranged game, along with huge organised parties throughout the weekend with other fan clubs. On their last trip in 2019, 35 fans made the trip to South Beach making them the second biggest fan club behind only the Mexicans. Despite living 4500 miles away from Miami, many fans feel closer to the Dolphins than any other team or sport. The community of Dolphins fans across the world is something you just dont get from other sports in the UK.
Charity is a major focus of the UK fan club and since 2017 they have raised an outstanding £30,000 for various charities. Most recently the two founding members walked 160 miles in 6 days (equivalent to a marathon a day) from Somerset to Brighton for their fan club weekend.
“The greatest thing about the Miami Dolphins is NOT the team, it’s the FANS of the Dolphins community. It is without doubt the best in the NFL. In the 4 short years since Fins Nation UK was created I have made many friends for life, not only in the UK or USA, but worldwide. We have affiliate fan clubs in Germany, France, Italy and Mexico. Although I have met many of the Dolphins players past and present, give me a tailgate with the fans at East 12 outside Hard Rock Stadium anytime!”Wayne Collard- Founder of Fins Nation UK
Just like the UK, Germany also hosted an American Bowl game in 1992 in a 31-27 win against the Denver Broncos in Berlin, featuring both Marino and Elway. Since then, football in Germany has been constantly growing. NFL metrics classify 3.5 million Germans as “avid fans”, with a total fan base of 19-20 million, rivaling that of the UK. Weekly television viewership has grown by more than 20% annually since 2017.
Like in many other European countries, soccer is still by far the biggest of sports, meaning that football fans remain in the minority. The German fan base for the Dolphins ranks top 5 in number of fans, with the Seahawks and Packers battling it out for the top spot. Following their success over the past 20 years, the Patriots have also grown in numbers, as many fans sought to jump on the bandwagon. However, the Patriots fans lack a centralized organization of hardcore fans like the Dolphins and other top teams have within Germany. Miami Dolfans Germany are a very active Facebook community including Fans from Austria and Switzerland, reaching almost 2000 fans and the active community group exceeds 1100 members.
More than 250 German Dolphins fans attend the London games, as since the American Bowl days, there have been no more games outside of London other than in Mexico. That may soon change, with the possibility of games in Germany becoming ever more likely. As it stands there are currently three locations in mind including, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, with expectation that Germany will be able to host an annual game as soon as 2022. It is speculated that the NFL is hoping to exploit the tourism generated from Oktoberfest, the famous annual beer festival, for which Germany is renowned. I for one, as I am sure many Brits would happily make the trip across the continent.
“We think that football is family, especially with Dolfans, no matter where they live”Marcus Merten- Founder of Miami Dolfans Germany
In comparison with the UK and Germany, the NFL has evolved much slower in France. There is not a huge football community in the nation as a whole, as it seems there are quite stark cultural differences between the two countries. However, French Dolphins fans are numerous and active through social media and are popular within the general NFL fan community within the country. The Miami Dolphins French Fan Club is relatively new and ambitious fan club. Despite facing difficulties in language barriers, they are still well motivated and keen to express themselves when they make the trip to London for the games.
At this time it seems that there is not a comparable level of following in France to warrant the expansion of the International Series, nor is there the appropriate infrastructure to be able to host such an event. Nevertheless, French Dolphins fans remain hopeful that things will continue to grow, to enable their fortunes to change in the future.
The Dolphins have featured once in Mexico in 1997 in front of over 104,000 fans, which at the time was the third highest attendance at a game in NFL history. In an American Bowl matchup against the Denver Broncos, the Dolphins emerged victorious 38-19. Winning however did come at a cost with Zach Thomas sustaining injury to his left fibula causing him to miss the start of the season. The Dolphins are a top 7 team in terms of fans in Mexico with the Raiders being the most popular, along with the Cowboys, 49ers and the Patriots.
Since 2016, the NFL has scheduled a regular season game to increase the overall popularity of the sport. Mexico currently boasts the largest NFL fan base outside of the US and has become Mexico’s second most popular sport. Following the introduction of NFL Sunday Ticket, the game has continued to grow over the last 15 years.
Much to the dismay of the Mexican fans, their games over the past 3 seasons have all been cancelled as a result of poor field conditions and of course the coronavirus pandemic. However, looking towards opportunities for the future, it appears that as a consumer market, Mexico does not appear to be as valuable to the NFL as what the UK is. This may help to explain why the expansion of the International Series has been predominantly focused on giving more games in Europe, rather than to increase the number of games held in Mexico.
While the criticism of the International Series is understandable from a fans perspective, with the prospect of potentially losing the chance to see their team at Hard Rock, the new changes brought in by the NFL benefit everybody. When the Dolphins travel to London week 6 @ Jacksonville (technically), the roar of the European fans (including myself) will infact create a tenth home game for Miami, giving them a huge advantage over their rivals. The Miami Dolphins are now an internationally recognized brand, a premier brand, with a loyal and passionate fan base across the globe. Here is to hoping that fans across the world will be celebrating a successful 2021 campaign together. Fins Up!
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