NFL hopes historic game becomes Brits' cup of tea

The NFL had a passionate following in the U.K. in the 1980s but its appeal since has dwindled. The historic Giants-Dolphins' regular-season game in London could put the league back on the British sporting radar.

Originally Published: October 20, 2007
By Mark Woods | Special to

LONDON -- It's late afternoon Sunday. The myriad television screens are showing the big football game in this downtown bar, which should not be confused with a pub, you understand.

Pubs serve chips. Here it's fries on the menu, along with brownies for dessert.

The final whistle blows. Pain and ecstasy are divided along partisan lines. Then the satellite remote changes the channel and the floor begins to empty.

Why the hurry to depart? Another three games are coming up on the bar's TVs. Except it's a different brand of football on the menu now. In this variety, the ball is thrown not kicked, a goal is worth three points not one, and the Malcolm Glazer family cheers on the Buccaneers team it owns -- not the Manchester United club it controls. And for the hardy few patrons who remain, theirs is a game which is battling to get onto the British sporting radar rather than sitting squarely in its middle.

When the NFL hits London's new Wembley Stadium this weekend, with a sellout crowd approaching 86,000, it will be the biggest day out imaginable for a cluster of Her Majesty's subjects. Some will go for the novelty, for a close-up look at what the soccer-addicted locals steadfastly call "American football." Even though almost 1 million ticket requests were received when it was announced the Miami Dolphins would face the New York Giants in a regular-season contest, most people will carry on unaffected, content that their acquaintance with the gridiron ends with a man called O.J.

"The sport's had a bit of a roller-coaster ride here," admits Ken Walters of the British American Football Association (BAFA), the body which oversees indigenous development activities.

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"It really arrived in 1982 when we started getting NFL on television. It was a completely new sport. You had this action-packed game. Cheerleaders. The glamour. People really got into it, and for a while it just grew and grew."

It helped that there was a homegrown idol. In the 1980s, British-born Mick Luckhurst, then the kicker for the Atlanta Falcons, nearly did for American football here what Major League Soccer hopes David Beckham will do for that sport Stateside. And at one point, Walters estimates, there were about 200 domestic teams, some hiring American players to strengthen their challenge. This once-obscure import from across the pond had become "bloody cool."

To capitalize, the NFL staged preseason games at the original Wembley from 1986 to 1993; the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys were the first to take part in a series of American Bowls. That was swiftly followed by the creation of NFL Europe (originally the World League) and the birth of firstly the London Monarchs and later the Scottish Claymores.

For a while, the rise seemed unstoppable. "Then the TV deal changed," Walters recounts. "It went onto satellite. Sponsors pulled out and the game effectively went into decline. It bottomed out five years ago when we had less than 80 clubs. And it was no longer the case that everyone would stay up late once a year to watch the Super Bowl."

There is an element of inbuilt cultural protectionism at work. Tribalism rules. Not everyone is welcoming the attempts to reverse the decline.

"There is only one sport in the U.K. and that's soccer," insists Stephen McGowan, a sportswriter with the Daily Mail. "It's almost the U.S. in reverse. We're so entrenched in our own sports that we don't want to give anything new a chance in the same way soccer struggles over there. ... Maybe people are a bit suspicious of the razzamatazz of it all."

Nonetheless, plenty of NFL die-hards exist, just as rabid as the Dawg Pound or the cheeseheads.

Roy Davis, aka "The Mad Hatter," is one. For a decade, the Englishman has trekked around Europe and North America following the sport -- with one unique twist. For every new stop, a new custom-designed piece of headgear.

"For Wembley, I'm thinking something tall and inflatable," he reveals. Like so many, he was first seduced by the glitz, then began to appreciate the nuances.

"Even though the Monarchs and Claymores have gone, I still have my passion for the NFL and for football. In NFL Europe, you developed friendships with other fans from Spain, Germany and Holland. I expect there'll be a lot of us dotted around Wembley, and there's a few parties organized.

"I'm not sure the stadium people will be prepared for it. It's not like soccer. You'll have a New Yorker supporting the Giants sitting beside a Scotsman following Miami. You don't get that normally here."

Taylor Fan Club
AP Photo/Tom HeveziIn June the real Jason Taylor, center, posed with members of the U.K.'s Miami Dolphins fan club to promote the NFL's regular-season arrival.
The NFL wants more of his ilk. All this week, a 26-foot high mechanized model of Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor is touring London, accompanied by a variety of staging posts where the alien concepts of blitzes, fourth downs and extra points can be explained, in simple terms, to the uninitiated.

Forget the hype this time. Feel the substance.

"The NFL has this incredible challenge to grow a nonindigenous sport," acknowledges Alistair Kirkwood, the managing director of the NFL's United Kingdom office.

"You had a situation before where it could have been the right sport at the right time. But things changed. Even our traditional sports in the U.K. changed.

"The Rugby World Cup's been huge over the last couple of months. Cricket has evolved to a shorter format. And the English Premiership and the Scottish Premier League were revamped."

American football, he concedes, got lost in the noise.

The effort to reassert the NFL's place has, in a sense, come full circle, and having the Dolphins in town will help to fuel the nostalgia of the lapsed aficionados. Miami is rated the second-most popular NFL team in the U.K., trailing only the New England Patriots. (Fortunately for the league, news of the Fins' current 0-7 predicament has not filtered onto the back pages of the London tabloid press.)

But there is a bigger play at stake. This week, BAFA and NFL are making a joint presentation to the British Parliament's Committee on Sport. Their argument is that the imported variety of football should no longer be seen as "American," and thus should receive the same kind of financial support that soccer does.

Walters underlines: "We're back up to 100 clubs again. We've got 7,000 players registered. And we're in a position to manage the demand which the NFL is trying to create."

After the final whistle has sounded on Sunday, and the bars are fully vacated, the plan is to not drop the ball.

Mark Woods is a freelance football writer based in the U.K.