European first: The NFL kicks off in London
The Miami Dolphins play the New York Giants Sunday to test market for football.
The NFL abroad. That's the story in the land of London fog on Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins host the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium, in the first NFL regular season game ever played outside the Americas. When the tickets went on sale last February, some 88,000 were sold in 72 hours.
For the NFL's brand-name brain trust, England and its environs are the next logical phase of globalization. They see the oblong American pigskin as a rising symbol of global sports, in an age of live media everything. Click on Tom Brady, from Bristol. Join a virtual tailgate, from Wales. Look out Germany and Spain. Even China seriously considered an exhibition last August.
"Live sport, and great live sport, is one of the unifying things people want right now," argued Mark Waller, head of the NFL's international division in New York. "We don't have an English sports world or an American sports world. My kids navigate every sport on the Internet."
Here, the blokes don't play American football. But they do watch it, party, and pub with it, and in serious enough numbers to get taken seriously. Last year's Super Bowl drew 5 million viewers in the mother country, according to NFL officials in New York. In the run-up to the Dolphins-Giants game, Wembley was dangled by the NFL as a future venue for the biggest single-day TV audience known to humankind.
The NFL doesn't slack on the promotion overseas, either: We've had Dolphins cheerleaders at the House of Commons; NFL owners and former Pro Bowlers floating around Buckingham; photo-ops at the Tower of London for the Giants, who will practice at the facilities of the Chelsea soccer club. There's even a 26-foot walking, talking semblance of Dolphin Jason Taylor, or JT, the 2006 defensive player of the year.
The Dolphins, training at the London Wasps's rugby training facility, might hope that both JT and his alter-ego could line up at kickoff on Sunday. Their exasperating 0-7 record, and the loss of league-leading running-back Ronnie Brown last week, doesn't make this game the most meaningful on the NFL docket.
As Mr. Taylor noted ruefully after last Sunday's blowout by the relentless Hessian army otherwise known as the New England Patriots' offense, "Well, we can't win in America; maybe we can win overseas."
But most Brits are blithely unaware of such specifics. "The Giants are from New York, right?" said a businessman walking past the animatronic "Big JT."
"I was under the impression this is a really important game for the NFL," said Crissy Wisker, a saleswoman in downtown London.
Whether NFL Live from London is a major novelty item a mile wide and an inch deep – or the beginning of a real spread of smash-mouth sports to the earth's far corners, is unknown. Britain itself has spread sports, from tennis to soccer to cricket, worldwide. But American football "is different from anything we watch," says Gareth Davis, an NFL official in London. "We still do a little simple educating. We tell people you have four opportunities to make 10 yards, and go from there."
Sunday will partly determine whether the league moves to two regular-season games overseas annually. But the NFL isn't yet saying where or who. In the 1980s, Britain held its first exhibition NFL match, featuring the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys. At first, the Yanks' version of football sold out stadiums. But ticket sales waned in the '90s. NFL executives say that sports-savvy Brits tired of exhibition games, quarterbacked by backups.
"People don't want something that isn't genuine," says Mr. Waller. "In this market, they want to see the best ... the real thing."
Yet therein lie a number of rubs. Not all players or coaches, and certainly not all fans and owners, have bought into the NFL abroad, sources say. Sunday's Dolphins-Giants experiment will undergo an official league evaluation: How did players react to time-zone changes? Were there too many distractions? It isn't quite clear what will happen. The X-factor in the highly competitive NFL is always performance, and the change in culture and geography might affect a team.
Sources close to one NFL team note that head coaches hold the final say on whether they will risk possible player lapses on any given Sunday, in order to export.
"Coach approval is critical in the NFL," says a long-time NFL sportswriter. "A coach with a winning record may not agree to a risky distraction overseas. I can't imagine [New England head coach Bill] Belichick going for it. That's why it is important the London event goes smoothly for the NFL."
Dolfans, as they are known in Miami, have grumbled there aren't enough home games to begin with. (In New Yorker-rich Miami, many Giants fans say their team hasn't been scheduled for south Florida since 1996. "So what's this London trip?" many have asked – and not always politely.)
The London game will be broadcast in 216 countries. The next two Super Bowls will air for the first time on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Efforts to establish a home-grown American-style football league here, Europa NFL, withered away last year. Whether a European city could one day overcome the logistics to being an NFL franchise, as some in the league hope, may be a different question.
In 2005, Mexico City held the only other officially foreign NFL game, when a record crowd of 103,467 watched the San Francisco 49ers play the Arizona Cardinals.
"Pro football in America has grown organically," Waller comments. "No one sat down in a room at one time and planned 32 teams and the biggest TV contracts ever."
Near the Big JT exhibit yesterday, Oliver Milford of London commented that American football could one day become the No. 4 favorite sport in England, after soccer, cricket, and rugby. "But I don't think it will ever replace the sport we most love to play – I mean fishing."