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Transatlantic (American) Football

PopMatters columnist, hyperventilating with hero worship, rushes the NFL in London.

The NFL has finally gone global. It happened pretty much after figures revealed that less than three percent of the League’s income arrives from international shores. For the organisation that’s allegedly the benchmark for all sports leagues, three percent is not an impressive figure. In terms of active participation, the numbers are even worse.

With NBA, NHL and MLB rosters full of non-American athletes, with the exception of the occasional Aussie Rules Football player brought in to fill punter slots and a few European players on practice squads, the NFL has been left behind. After becoming America’s most popular sporting export in the 1980s, pro football has become old news. The powers that be at the NFL aren’t dummies. They’re doing something about it.

And so, on a rainy October evening, London’s freshly built Wembley Stadium -- the massively delayed and over-budget arena built over the remains of the original arena -- your humble columnist sat transfixed as the lowly Miami Dolphins played host, in the loosest sense of the word, to the New York Giants in front of 90,000 international NFL fans.

The Dolphins were the natural choice to give up a home fixture for the first regular season NFL game to be played outside the North American continent. Arguably the most well supported team in the UK (the sport’s golden age for British TV ratings coincided with Dan Marino’s emergence as one of the great quarterbacks), on paper it was a great decision. Sadly, the team the NFL were planning on showcasing turned up in London with a 0-7 record and a starting quarterback and running back on injured reserve.

It turned out the Dolphins’ ineptitude and London’s typically lousy autumn weather mattered little. It was, unanimously, a great evening out.

Three hours before kick off, the walkway from Wembley Park station to the stadium was full of fans, clad in every NFL team jersey the Internet can produce. Alistair Kirkwood, head of NFL UK, stood proudly outside, chatting with TV crews and friends. A random fan in a Vikings shirt recognised Kirkwood from the PR blitz of the preceding two weeks and stuck out his hand.

“Thanks for organising today,” said the fan. Kirkwood shook his hand warmly. It was that kind of day.

In all fairness, tailgating doesn’t translate well to English shores, and most people were happy to stay out of the rain and spot passing celebrities. Contemptible TV ‘personality’ Vernon Kaye was lingering with intent, actor John Cusack sauntered past, the epitome of NYC cool, while England rugby God Richard Hill mingled with friends outside the hospitality area, blissfully unaware that a nearby PopMatters columnist was hyperventilating with hero worship, nervously waiting for the perfect moment to pounce for a photo.

Inside, the fans were salivating for kick off. The pre-game rituals flew by in a blur. The coin toss was performed by three honorary captains for the day: Rugby World Cup-Winning England captain Martin Johnson (huge cheer), British Formula One sensation Lewis Hamilton (huge cheer) and Chelsea and England soccer captain John Terry (enormous boo). British sports crowds, whatever the event, always come with a sense of mischief.

The USA gets a tough time in the UK. The stereotype of the gun-shootin’, Bush-votin’, evolution-hatin’ patriot runs strong over here. Not everyone rose for the start of the Star Spangled Banner, but Jocelyn Brown’s mighty gospel performance produced a standing ovation by its end. Simon Cowell-endorsed opera singer Paul Potts earned a slightly more muted reception for his rendition of God Save the Queen, but it mattered little. For NFL football was upon us. And we were baying for action.

As a competitive spectacle, the game itself disappointed. The field, not laid with 300-pound behemoths in mind, quickly turned to muddy sludge. The Dolphins offence was as anaemic as advertised, and the Giants were deservedly up 13-0 at halftime. The second half had its moments of tension but, still, big plays were few and far between. The final score, Giants 13, Dolphins 10, wasn’t as close as it sounds.

But the atmosphere never let up. The fear of American columnists that the British crowd wouldn’t know when to cheer and was only there out of curiosity, was entirely unfounded. Curiosity doesn’t get 500,000 ticket applications. The fans understood the nuances of the game and weren’t shy in letting the teams hear about it. And although the game never lived up to the occasion, no one present was disappointed. The beer flowed. Every first down, for either team, was greeted with a mighty roar. Men ogled the Dolphins’ cheerleaders. And the beer flowed some more.

As a one-off event, the day was a howling success. As the first step in the NFL’s eventual expansion into Europe? Well, that day’s still a long way off.

Two months ago your correspondent attended a different kind of American football event entirely. The Coventry Cassidy Jets at the London Blitz was the finest regular season game the BAFL (British American Football League) has seen for many years. The hitting was ferocious. The standard of play higher than anyone would rightly expect from part-time weekend warriors. And the game went right down to the wire. The game took place in the centre of Finsbury Park running track, while a couple of hundred spectators stood on the sides of the field. There was no scoreboard. No visible clock. Even the burger stall ran out of propane.

The difference is culture. Football is the dominant sport in the USA. From high school through college to the pros, the road is well trodden and unvarying. It is a career millions of young men aspire to. European fans can talk the talk, and a small yet devoted fan base really love the game, but without home-grown players, American football will always be a spectacle rather than an integral part of the sports culture. And no matter how much the suits at the NFL talk of the entertainment package the game provides, without opportunities for raw, untrained, non-American players, speculation about future expansion teams in Europe, or a Super Bowl in London, seems hopelessly far-fetched.

The comparison to soccer’s emergence in the US is meaningless. Buy a ball, put down a pair of sweaters and you’re playing soccer. Football, the American variety, demands study, coordination and rigorous training. Anything less, and it’s just a game of catch.

Oakland Raider Michael Quarshie is a rarity, a non-American NFL player who began his career in Europe. A bright and charming Finn, who won an academic scholarship to Columbia University, Quarshie is out on injured reserve for the 2007 season. We spoke at length about the prospects for aspiring non-American football players over a plate of ribs in hospitality after the Wembley game.

The talent is out there, he assured me. But unlike the NBA, whose scouts are scanning the world for talented seven-footers as you read, the NFL, and American colleges in particular, are most definitely not searching far-flung football fields, rugby pitches and running tracks for natural athletes. Even if a young sportsman devoted himself to the game, why would a college provide a scholarship to an unproven athlete whose understanding of the game might not be up to speed, and who might get homesick at any given point? Hot prospect? Perhaps. But better hand the scholarship to the local lad who’s been preparing for college football his entire life.

These are the thoughts of Quarshie, a man big and agile enough to buck that trend, and entertaining enough to recount some genuinely funny eye-popping anecdotes about current NFLers.

He’s right, of course. NFL Europe, previously the World League of American Football, folded last summer with a whimper. It was costing the NFL a small fortune to prop up when they unceremoniously pulled the plug. When it was good, in London and Frankfurt at least, it was great. The league’s flagship team, The London Monarchs, drew huge crowds to the previous version of Wembley Stadium at the beginning of the 1990s. But ever-changing rosters doomed the Monarchs and the rest of the league. Without steady players for fans to get behind, and only a tiny fraction of the team coming from Europe, fans were left cheering for the shirts alone. And despite what Jerry Seinfeld theorised, a team needs a little more than that for its support to rally behind.

One key, it would appear, would be shedding the ‘American’ from football. The game, if it is to succeed outside the US, needs to be universal. It can’t rely on billionaire owners, cheerleaders, and the annual hype that surrounds the Superbowl. Across Europe and around the world, people have grown resistant to American cultural imperialism. The NFL knows this. Already the sport has been re-branded in Europe as ‘NFL’, not American Football. Anything to dispel the old attitudes of fans and media alike – ‘what was the matter with our football? Why do we need this new, American version?’

The NFL will hopefully be back in London next year. It could sell out Wembley four or five times over. But if the game is ever to expand from its American home, the NFL is going to have to put time and money in the game at grass roots level, with the fruits of that investment only becoming apparent a decade or more down the line. Maybe the league did shift a few extra replica jerseys in the build up to the Wembley game. But if the NFL genuinely wants to export itself worldwide it’s going to have to get down in the dirt and work for it.

* * *

Many thanks to Amer Sports for their incredible hospitality and generosity, and without whom this column would not have been possible. Yes, that is my own personalised game ball in the photo.

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