By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007
LONDON, Oct. 28 -- The NFL rolled into London on Sunday night like a rollicking American circus, filled with pyrotechnics and pom-pom-pumping cheerleaders and enormous men slamming each other in front of more than 80,000 delirious -- if slightly confused -- fans.
In the process, the New York Giants defeated the winless Miami Dolphins, 13-10, on a cold and rainy evening at Wembley Stadium in the first regular season NFL game ever played outside of North America. The weather clearly was a factor as the Giants (6-2) jumped to a 13-0 lead at the half and held on to win on the sloppy pitch. Although Eli Manning passed for only 59 yards, he scored the Giants' only touchdown while Brandon Jacobs carried the ball 23 times for 131 yards. New York's defense took it from there, giving up only 254 yards and keeping Miami from scoring a touchdown until only 1 minute 54 seconds remained.
Sunday's game was an event that officials from the world's richest sports league, which generates $7 billion in annual revenue, hoped would help expand the game's audience internationally and create opportunities for expanding what is perhaps the most uniquely American major sport.
Sports analysts here have been deeply skeptical about whether American football can catch on in any meaningful way or become anything more than a spectacular curiosity, in a nation passionately obsessed with soccer, cricket and rugby.
"There are people desperate to get tickets," said Keith Nancarrow, assistant sports editor of the Sun newspaper. He said there was a "hard core" of a million or more Britons who understand and support American football. "But the rest of the population can't get their heads around it at all -- a bunch of big blokes in lots of padding running into each other."
Nancarrow, echoing a common sentiment among many here, said: "Just as I don't think Americans have taken too much to cricket, we haven't really taken to football. I don't think it will ever be a mainstream sport."
But such skepticism was hard to find Sunday at Wembley, where British fans cheered madly and thousands of cameras flashed when a Dolphins mascot carrying a British flag led the Miami team onto the field amid showers of sparks from a fireworks display.
"I think a NFL franchise in Europe would be very well supported," said George Brand, 28, a cellphone salesman who flew from Scotland for the game and wore a New Orleans Saints jersey. "I think all it needs is a spark."
Brand, who is 5 feet 6 and 238 pounds, said he plays defensive tackle for the Dundee Hurricanes of the amateur British American Football League. He said he's been playing football for 15 years, since an American student transferred to his school in Scotland and started tossing a football with his friends.
"It all snowballed from there," said Brand, who paid $120 for his ticket. Sunday's game sold out in a matter of hours when tickets went on sale, and organizers said they could have filled the stadium several times over. Those who got tickets came to the stadium, normally home to England's national soccer team, wearing shirts and caps from practically every NFL franchise.
They stood politely for the U.S. national anthem and sang along to "God Save the Queen," which was performed by an opera singer who recently won a nationally televised talent show similar to "American Idol." They stood in long lines to buy $30 T-shirts, $7 hot dogs and game programs selling for $40.
In the stands, a man dressed as Captain America sat next to a man dressed as a hot dog. The crowd roared when a streaker, his private parts covered by what appeared to be a football, ran onto the field and did a few fleshy pushups before being hauled away.
On each Miami first down, the public address announcer said, in his clearly American accent: "That's another Miami Dolphins . . ."
"FIRST DOWN!" the crowd roared back.
"It's not just a curiosity; people really do understand the game," said Oliver Brown, a sports correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. "But there doesn't seem to be a great will here to sustain the sport. I don't think people see it yet as a way to spend a weekend."
But the "perceived glamour" of football makes it a spectacle that can easily fill a huge stadium like Wembley, Brown said. "There's a sense of occasion about it," said Brown, who traveled to New York and Miami last week with a large group of British journalists writing advance stories for Sunday's game.
Brown said many British people have grown up watching Super Bowls with glitz and glamour that make British professional soccer games look like a village competition. The NFL has played nine exhibition games in London since 1983 -- the same year the Super Bowl was first televised live in Britain. The NFL grew in popularity on British television throughout the 1980s as games were broadcast live on Sunday nights and Super Bowl parties became "in vogue," Brown said.
"It was the first American sport on terrestrial TV, and it really caught the imagination," Brown said. "It was this alien, exciting, glamorous thing that was coming into people's living rooms on a Sunday night."
Joan Lee, 66, came to Sunday's game wearing a Houston Oilers jacket she bought in the early 1990s. She said she first saw football in the 1960s when British television would show reruns of college bowl games. She recalled her father walking in once and asking, "What on earth are you watching?"
"I don't know, Dad, but it's very interesting," she said. "That was it," she said. "I was hooked."
Thanks largely to the popularity of the televised games, London even had a football team from 1991 to 1998 -- the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football, an NFL affiliate that later changed its name to NFL Europe.
While the Monarchs drew crowds of 40,000 or more at first, fans eventually lost interest and the team disappeared. William "The Refrigerator" Perry played on the team in 1996 after his retirement from the NFL. NFL Europe eventually dwindled to a six-team league -- five of them in Germany -- before the NFL pulled the plug on it in August.
Lee's son-in-law, Andrew Beaver, 46, came to the game wearing a Washington Redskins jacket, cap and jersey. He said he became hooked on football and the Redskins in 1984, when he watched the Super Bowl live on British television. "It took off from there," said Beaver, who was joined at the game by Lee, his wife, Nancy Beaver, and their three children -- two of them in Redskins gear.
For a half-dozen years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Beaver, 6-2 and 200 pounds, played tight end for the London Capitals in a now-defunct British amateur league. He said he's gained weight and can no longer fit into his John Riggins jersey, but he still plays fantasy football in a league with more than 10,000 participants in Britain. He and his family paid almost $700 for their six tickets. Beaver said he hoped the Wembley game would spark a resurgence of British interest in football -- and maybe even a London NFL franchise.
"If they did have it again," Nancy Beaver said, "it would take off."