Suspicion, excitement greet NFL in London

The NFL hasn't seen a buzz like this in London since the Fridge touched down.

Take a look at Saturday's British press, and you'd think soccer had gone on vacation and the Giants vs. the Dolphins was the only game in town. There's even an above-the-fold picture on the front page of the Financial Times, though of course they're more interested in the long-term business implications of the game than anything else.

But clearly the NFL has taken the town by storm. It's odd, given that the NFL has spent 25 years on British TV, that papers are printing glossaries of football terms, but remember that when the Arizona Diamondbacks reached the World Series for the first time, the local papers there were printing guides to baseball.

Then again, London mayor Ken Livingstone got his tips from Christian Slater, who's on stage in the West End and helped launch the giant Jason Taylor robot in Trafalgar Square. Slater's last venture into football punditry was in the Monday Night booth last season, where his performance hadn't been surpassed until Jimmy Kimmel's this year. There was also an appearance by the Dolphins cheerleaders at the Houses of Parliament, where they were greeted by an "all-party" group of MPs. British politicians must be more up-front than their American counterparts.

There may be an ocean of hype and hoopla, but there is also an element of suspicion. Alastair Kirkwood, the energetic managing director of NFL UK, has tried to alleviate some of that by pointing out that the league's goal is to become the No. 5 sport in Britain, not replacing soccer, rugby, cricket, or Formula 1 motor racing, but slotting in as a valuable television property that can generate full stadia as well. As a Brit, Kirkwood has been charming the British press, from the tabloids who want details of the cheerleaders to the FT, who want to know just what soccer team Robert Kraft might be interested in buying.

Many ask why the NFL would be trying again, and Kirkwood explains that, with the U.S. market saturated, and communications bringing the world closer together, it's not a stretch to expect to transform the NFL's popularity as a minority sport in Britain into something larger. After all, British audiences can see as many as six games a week on two channels, with subscription Sky Sports and terrestrial Channel Five sharing the regular season, and the BBC coming on board this year for the Wembley game highlights and the Super Bowl live.

What worries the British papers is the way the NFL can persuade its teams to forgo a home gate to play overseas for the benefit of the whole league. They can't imagine the equivalent soccer teams, say Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, travelling to New York for a regular season game. When I point out that the regular season game in Mexico City two years ago drew more than 100,000 spectators, and that was the equivalent of staging a Premier League game in France, one Sky Sports reporter said simply, "UEFA (the European federation) would never allow it, even if the teams and the French wanted to do it."

But with NFL owners, and other U.S. sports investors, moving into the Premier League (Tampa Bay's Glazers own Manchester United, the best-known soccer club in the world, while Cleveland's Randy Lerner bought Birmingham's Aston Villa) there is the growing suspicion in Britain that the U.S. remains one step ahead in terms of recognizing market opportunities.

After all, if I had told an English soccer fan back in 1986 that he would be watching Premier League matches in all-seating stadia on Monday nights, live on television, with players wearing numbers beyond one through eleven on jerseys with their names on the back, I would have been told I was crazy. If I had mentioned that the recent rugby World Cup was decided by a call made using instant replay, that the players would be wearing helmets and shoulder pads like 1920s gridiron, and flak jackets like those worn by Dan Marino, and that there would be virtually unlimited substitution in a "free-flowing" game, I might have been hospitalized. But that is the long-term effect of the first American football boom two decades ago. And wondering what the coming second wave has in store has British sports fans worried.

What Wembley has in store for the Dolphins and the Giants is easier to figure. Because the tickets were sold to fans who registered with the NFL UK website, this will be an audience that understands the game, and knows what to expect in terms of stoppages, referee's explanations, and challenges. There's not likely to be a home-field advantage for either team, even though the Dolphins are the nominal home team, and as the underdogs might pick up some support.

But the fans are likely to show up at Wembley for the tailgating and the game dressed in the jerseys of their own favorite teams. To some extent, those teams remain the ones that were popular in the 1980s ... the Marino Dolphins, the Montana 49ers, the Rigginomics Redskins, the Super BowlBears, and the Cowboys. The Patriots have become popular in the past decade, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have many fans, based partly on vacation travel to Florida and partly on a remarkable British fan club based at bucpower.com.

Kirkwood called it a "rainbow coalition of football fans" and that's what Sunday is all about. That hard-core base of some million football fans will know that Sunday is their day, as much as it is for the Dolphins and Giants, and they will cheer both teams anticipating that they are breaking the ground for another boom in the sport they all love.

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