At 3:30 Tuesday morning, with Green Bay leading Denver 13-10 at the two-minute warning, I leaned over to my co-host in Channel Five's Monday Night Football studio in London and pointed out that it was the same as the final score from Wembley Stadium the night before, yet I didn't hear anyone complaining. Nor did I hear them blame the altitude or the groundskeepers every time someone slipped on the Invesco Field grass at Mile High Stadium. Of course, Wembley got an onsides kick that slid out of bounds, while the Green Bay-Denver game featured an 82-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Greg Jennings on the first play of overtime. But that's hardly grounds to write off the Wembley game.
Hungarian-born humorist George Mikes used to say that in Europe civilized people never discuss the weather, while in Britain that's all they discuss. But in the aftermath of the first regular-season NFL game staged outside North America, it seemed like it was us, the Americans, who wanted to use the rain that England is famous for as a criticism of the whole idea of playing real NFL games overseas.
Certainly no one expected that the Dolphins -- one of the most popular teams in Britain when the NFL's popularity here took off in the 1980s -- would arrive in London without a win, with Trent Green, Ronnie Brown, Zach Thomas, and Chris Chambers all missing, and wind up playing their hearts out in a sloppy game that, as Jason Taylor said, was typical of football played in those conditions.
The British media also sensed disappointment that there wasn't a 35-28 shootout. But that sort of backlash was to be expected. The pattern in the media here is generally to jump on the bandwagon of hype, start with some knowing cynicism, and then cut it to pieces after you've reaped its benefits.
Before the game, I took part in a "debate" in the Guardian newspaper with Daryl "Moose" Johnston. The question: Will American football conquer Britain? Since they already had Johnston to say "yes." I took the "no" position. No, in this case, meaning that of course we weren't going to see thousands of young Mooses running around Britain, but that in every other sense, American football was already conquering the nation.
After the game, one of the more sour of the sour grape merchants wrote in the Independent that he couldn't understand why everyone was so excited about the "razzmatazz" surrounding the game, when they already have cheerleaders and a halftime show at Bradford Bulls rugby league club. That, my friend, was the point. Were it not for American football -- for the TV shows that began in 1982, and the Fridge selling out Wembley in 1986 -- halftime at rugby league would still consist of a grisly meat pie and a lukewarm cup of tea. British soccer now has a live Monday night football game of its own. The players have their names on the backs of their shirts, and numbers that range beyond 1-11. The Rugby World Cup final turned on an English try overturned by the video replay official. American football didn't take over British sport then, nor will it now, but it did give them a model they adopted because it worked, and it probably will do the same again.
Most of the American media in London soaked up the atmosphere. Certainly, when I emerged onto Wembley Way from the chaotic underground system (there was a signal failure at Kings Cross station) and walked past the assembled ticket touts and purveyors of cheesy souvenir scarves, then sniffed the unmistakable odor of British "burgers" frying in rancid oil, I knew the experience would not be exactly like it was at home. Perhaps this is what the 2012 Olympics will be like. There are no parking lots at the stadium, so "tailgating" was restricted to an area in Wembley Arena, with not a country squire (the station wagon, not the English gent) in sight.
But none of the fans were complaining. Not one. The reality, of course, is that the NFL could have sold out Wembley Stadium four or five times over. The fan base in the UK is big enough and devoted enough to do that, and this game was, in a sense, their reward for a quarter of a century of loyalty to a sport most were unlikely to ever play. In that sense, it's different from soccer in the U.S. What the English call "football" is a major participant sport in America, and the U.S. does as well as England and better than Scotland in soccer's World Cup, but that hasn't translated into a big-time spectator following. American football has the opposite problem: without a participant base of any great size, it presents a television package, and a live spectacle, that can still be attractive to an audience that simply comprehends the basics.
Germany is the logical next stop in Europe: A number of German cities have supported NFL Europe, it has the strongest amateur league in Europe, and a batch of new stadia constructed for soccer's World Cup make it attractive.
Alastair Kirkwood, managing director of NFLUK, admits that many people viewed the Wembley game as a circus. But the carnival atmosphere worked. "We're in this for the long haul," he said. "But we're trying to stimulate interest, spur demand, and take it from there." It's something no other sport worldwide has tried to do: basketball, hockey, and baseball all are played in large parts of the world. Should the NFL be satisfied with its preeminent status in the domestic marketplace? Or can it sell itself again to audiences that don't know a chop block from a pork chop? The message of the Wembley game was that they are certainly going to try.