English Interest in NFL Is Picking Up
In his New Orleans Saints garb—a black jersey, matching ski cap, and silver necklace bearing the team's Fleur de Lis logo as a charm—Jay Boyd stood out like a Union Jack-wearing Brit in the French Quarter. But as the 25-year-old New Orleans resident walked around Central London on Friday morning, the locals helped Boyd feel like he was back on the Bayou.
"Just this hour, about 11 people have said something to me," said Boyd, who flew across the pond for Sunday's Saints-San Diego Chargers game at Wembley Stadium. "People find it interesting. They're screaming, 'Football!'"
For the NFL, this marks progress.
Roughly a half-mile away, the entire second floor of the Foot Locker on Oxford Street—one of the world's busiest shopping areas—has been transformed into an NFL showcase.
NFL videos are continuously splashed upon a giant screen surrounded by player lockers stuffed with knickknacks. Oversized posters of Chargers and Saints players hang from the walls. A wealth of clothing selections includes Drew Brees jerseys ($110 in U.S. currency) and hooded San Diego sweatshirts ($80).
One employee says the merchandise is selling "OK," clearly trying to be kind. He also said the leftover goods will be repackaged and sent away once the game is over, reflecting only novelty interest in the product.
But while gear isn't flying off the shelves, the three videogame stations featuring Madden 09 are constantly occupied. On an early Friday afternoon, a group of non-American players are trash-talking and high-fiving while gaming.
Yet maybe the most telling sign of the NFL's inroads into the United Kingdom can be found in the pre-game marketing hype. There isn't much. There was no need.
The Chargers and Saints don't have nearly the following as Miami and the New York Giants, the teams who played last October in the NFL's regular-season London debut. No matter. Just like last year, this game quickly sold out 80,000-plus tickets. The same for 20,000 tickets to a pre-game tailgate party.
The London Times reported two more positive signs for the NFL:
•Viewership of games on British cable network Sky Sports increased by 45 percent following the Giants-Dolphins clash.
•The NFL will turn a profit on the Chargers-Saints game despite the $10 million operational cost in holding it here.
The NFL estimates that 5,000 US fans (4,000 representing New Orleans; 1,000 from San Diego) have made the trek for Sunday's contest. That is a lower number of Americans than last year, but the locals have picked up the slack.
Mark Waller, the NFL executive who spearheads the London initiative, estimates the crowd will be 90 percent British. "That's the goal," Waller said. "At the end of the day, our goal is to build a fanbase in the UK."
In 2007, the NFL trumpeted its arrival in a soccer-crazed country with an advertising and media blitz. New York Giants players posed with stars from the other kind of "football." A 26-foot-high robot—the largest animated figure ever built—was made in the likeness of then-Miami defensive end Jason Taylor and showcased around the city.
The NFL had the chance to transform the "Giant J.T." into a "Giant L.T." (San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson), but passed. The same goes for all the photo ops and pre-game news conferences that had last year's players running ragged.
Even the NFL's free two-night concert series is relatively subdued. After internally discussing the possibility of booking a mega-act like U2 or Madonna, the league embraced a New Orleans musical theme with renowned jazz, Zydeco, and rhythm and blues musicians.
"We did a lot last year to get awareness," Waller said. "This year, you'll see a lot more emphasis on the game and how it's played."
Such tutorials are necessary even though NFL games began airing on British television in the mid-1980s. Fans at last year's Giants-Dolphins game excessively cheered mundane plays, blew whistles like at soccer matches (an NFL no-no), and didn't understand what was happening when Giants quarterback Eli Manning kneeled to run out the clock and secure a 13-10 victory.
The NFL will try further educating fans during its Sunday telecast on the BBC, which is the world's largest broadcasting network (and one that hasn't aired an NFL game since the mid-1990s).
Because the BBC doesn't allow commercials, Waller said the NFL will use some of that airtime Sunday on vignettes showing such basics as "how to catch the ball, tackle, and what a block is." Similar messages aired on the Wembley video screens during breaks in last year's game.
"We found last year that we've got a lot of people interested," Waller said. "Now the question is, 'How do I understand it and know what's going on when I watch?'"
John Page is still trying to figure that out himself.
A 37-year-old sports enthusiast, Page has a cursory interest in the NFL that began in the 1980s as a Dan Marino fan. But the West London accountant said he and other Brits still have difficulty with the game's nuances such as intricate rules, slower pacing than soccer, and "all the padding" worn by players compared to rugby.
"The only way you're going to get people hyped up about something is if they have a belief in it or support a team," Page said over a pint of lager at a Soho-area pub. "It's very hard to support a team that plays in another country."
A permanent NFL team in London may someday come. The league already has agreed to at least one regular season game here for the next two years and could potentially play more if the schedule expands to 18 games in 2010.
That commitment does come with hardships for players and US fans. Because of the eight-hour time difference from the West Coast, the Chargers spent the entire week in unfamiliar surroundings practicing in the London area (the Saints did the same).
Both teams traveled overseas immediately after road games last Sunday, a journey that Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips called "exhausting." The return trip home will be the same, which is why the NFL has given San Diego and New Orleans byes after this matchup.
Playing conditions for Sunday's contest also may be subpar. The Wembley Stadium field was atrocious amid rainy conditions during the Giants-Dolphins game. Geared for soccer matches, a sloppy and shredded "pitch" greatly contributed to the low scoring.
Waller said NFL "field specialists" have worked with the Wembley groundskeepers in hopes of improving the playing surface. But with an 80 percent chance of rain at kickoff, Waller admits another Mud Bowl could be in the offing.
There would be no chance of this happening if the game were played in the Louisiana Superdome. Boyd also wouldn't have to travel 4,637 miles on a discount flight (he's an airline employee) and stay at a hostel (which is cheaper than a hotel) to see his beloved Saints play.
But as he strolled through London, Boyd admittedly was warming up to the idea of overseas games.
"This is good exposure for the city of New Orleans," he said. "We are the No. 1 sport in America. But to compete with soccer and make it in No. 1 the world, it would be pretty nice. I can understand where the NFL is coming from."
That, too, represents progress, even if it's one fan at a time—British or American—becoming believers that the NFL's London initiative is a worthwhile endeavor.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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