By Michael Wilbon
Friday, July 20, 2007
It should surprise no one if the NFL announces one day it plans to play two regular season games beyond Earth, one on Venus and another on Mars, both to be televised by the NFL Network. That would make about as much sense as discontinuing NFL Europe and then coming back two weeks later and announcing that, within five years, every NFL team would play one game outside the United States each season. It's the league's new plan to force the NFL upon people who don't want American football.
The overwhelming majority of Europeans don't want it, which is why NFL Europe lost approximately $400 million since it began play as the World League of American Football in 1991. It's not enough for the NFL to control the Sundays of 300 million people and be the dominant form of sports entertainment in the United States; the NFL apparently won't be satisfied until it dominates the world . . . not that the league is alone in its thinking.
Professional soccer isn't satisfied with being the most popular sport in the world; its international powers that be won't be satisfied until soccer has conquered the United States, no matter how many times Americans have turned thumbs down on domestic professional soccer.
The newest soccer savior, David Beckham, will make his debut as a U.S. property tomorrow in Los Angeles in a friendly against Chelsea (if his injured left ankle allows). Undoubtedly, Beckham's first few games -- perhaps even the rest of his games this season -- will be huge events. Becks is a megastar. His wife, Victoria, is a megastar. They don't just make the cover of SI; they're on the cover of W with barely any clothes. They're pop culture royalty, the equal of the summer's other super-couple, Eva Longoria and Tony Parker. Beckham's appearance here, Aug. 9 against D.C. United, could easily sell out. But will it change anything fundamentally? Soccer has already surpassed hockey on the American sports landscape. But bringing a past-his-prime star to lure casual fans not only isn't new, it failed miserably 22 years ago when the NASL went belly-up.
Beckham, in his wildest fantasies, isn't one one-hundredth the player the iconic Pele was even when he came to play for the New York Cosmos late in his career. RFK Stadium was packed on several occasions to see the fabulous Dutchman Johan Cruyff play for the old Diplomats. Aging stars coming to the States? Been there, done that, didn't work. Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia, who also left Europe to play with the Cosmos, told the Times of London that the MLS would need 50 players of Beckham's stature to make an impact.
Part of Beckham's problem is the Galaxy stinks. Every sportswriter in Britain is in Los Angeles now, writing about what a dog the Galaxy is. Beckham's new team has won only three of 12 games this year, and just 2,000 people showed up the other night to watch the Galaxy get blanked by a Mexican club team. The bet here is that Chinaglia is spot on. We're chauvinists. We follow what we invented or popularized (golf) and hardly anything else.
That said, soccer here is in much better shape than pro football in Europe. The NFL has no profile in London, in Paris, in Barcelona. It's King of America but a common peasant in Europe. The NFL's ego, accustomed to breathless coverage even of its offseason junk, simply can't take European rejection.
So a month after NFL Europe folded, the Dolphins and Giants are still scheduled to play in London on Oct. 28. The NFL clearly is convinced the Brits will know the difference between the Dolphins and, say, the Barcelona Dragons. How will this happen when the players' faces are hidden under helmets and the NFL has raised to an art form the marketing of teams over stars? Brits don't know who Dolphins star Jason Taylor is; Washingtonians barely know Taylor's face, and this is an NFL hotbed.
Of course, the NFL points to the fact that the game -- to be played at Wembley -- sold 40,000 tickets in 90 minutes. Mark Waller, the NFL executive who leads the league's international effort, said: "Ten years from now, I hope we will have a team in London. I hope we will have a team in Mexico. I hope we'll have one in Toronto, playing within the NFL."
I want to see if the interest for one Giants-Dolphins game conveys to any kind of sustained interest, which is doubtful. It's like Beckham coming to Los Angeles: a novelty. A few games are nice; they're cultural events. But a whole season of them? The NFL effort seems equal parts desperation and arrogance, having an almost monkey-see, monkey-do quality.
Soccer is an international sport and has been for decades. Basketball is an international sport and has been since the 1970s. People all over the globe play both regularly, and support their own leagues. Baseball, slowly, has extended its international reach, but seems to have enough restraint to know that selling a few jerseys overseas and scheduling games there on a consistent basis are two wildly different things.
A proposed preseason game between the Seahawks and Patriots in Beijing was canceled in April. Less than two years after the World League began in 1991, it had to shut down for two seasons. When the NFL finally pulled the plug on Europe, the teams were pretty much exclusive to German cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt) where there are a huge number of U.S. servicemen and women. Even so, it's reported that no other NFL games aside from the Super Bowl are televised in Germany.
Waller was widely quoted as saying, "The time is right to refocus the NFL's strategy on initiatives with global impact, including worldwide media coverage of our sport and the staging of live regular season NFL games."
The NFL in Europe seems to be behind where professional soccer was in the United States 30 years ago. There's probably not a single American footballer, not even Peyton Manning, who can create the buzz Beckham has in the United States. The question for Becks and soccer disciples is this: after his debut, how much will folks be paying attention?