The NFL in London: Eye Opener

wembley-stadium

I grew up with the NFL. So obsessed with the league was I as a kid, that I had wallpaper with the then 28 NFL helmets and cried in my third grade class the day the 1982 players strike began.

But, today I could not even name half the coaches or starting QBs in the NFL. The same goes for my ignorance of Major League Baseball and the NBA. My sporting life is dominated by World Football (what many Americans call Soccer) and College sports. College athletics contains the fan passion, traveling supporters and ruckus crowds that make World Football so appealing. From my vantage point, American Professional sports are sanitized games for the elite in society, much like Cricket is in the UK, and where the Premier League may be heading. This personally, does not appeal to me.

I happened to be in London this weekend, not because the NFL was in town (in fact I did not know the NFL was in town until arriving) but to cover the other football, and more specifically the Premier League for EPL Talk.com.

What struck me about the coverage of the NFL at Wembley was that the British press treated it, the way the American press treats the sport called Soccer in North America. Ignoring the large numbers of fans who are interested in the NFL, mostly from outside London (something I will touch upon shortly), the sports pages of the Independent and Guardian, my two preferred British papers (because I am a liberal and those are the two papers I read.) reduced the NFL game to a small pre game story on Sunday and a photo spread towards the back of the sports section on Monday.

Much like the way US qualifiers that get more viewers than mainstream American sports are handled in the local press stateside, the British press seemed to want to relegate what was perceived a foreign invasion to the back pages. Since much of my perspective on the relative popularity of sports comes from reading the foreign papers, and seeing what is on TV when I travel (The EPL, La Liga and NBA are far and away the biggest worldwide sporting leagues from what I have gathered,) I simply assumed every NFL fan attending the Wembley game would be from the states.

While a large number of fans of both the New England Patriots (for whom London is as close as San Diego) and the Tampa Bay Bucs did travel to London for the game, what I found on the Bakerloo Line of the Underground, and around Westminster on Sunday night was a large number of fans from the Midlands and the Northwest who came to Wembley to watch the NFL in person and wore the jersey’s of their favorite NFL team.

This was stunning to me. After all, on the night of the Liverpool-Manchester United game, I figured people from outside London, particularly from traditional Lancashire would have been singly obsessed with that match. While that match certainly featured prominently in people’s thoughts and expressions, the NFL was also ever present.

Given that the NFL fans were largely from outside of London, the age old prejudices of the Fleet Street based press were in full force in how they covered the match. To many, this event didn’t take place, and when confronted with a sold out crowd, the simple response was that it was simply American tourists and ameri-philes. (Much like I am told by many locally, when I cite evidence of sold out Soccer matches in Dallas or San Francisco that it is just foreigners or anglophiles attending.)

Keep in mind even in Football terms, London is a relative backwater. The press won’t admit this but it is. The sport was invented in Scotland and the rules were codified in Sheffield. The early years of the football league were dominated by Northern clubs, with a London side not winning a title until 1931. Still today, no London club has won the Champions League/European Cup while Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest are all multiple time winners.

But the bias of the London press corps was in full force again for me to witness as the NFL came to town. What it reminded me of was the struggle Soccer has stateside to break through with a largely Northeastern elitist based sports writer corp in the US. For many of these writers, Baseball still trumps the NFL even though Baseball is a regional sport whose interest nationally is probably less than that of NASCAR, College Football, the NBA, and yes the World Cup when it rolls around. (The TV ratings to prove more people watched the 2006 World Cup in the US than each of the last five World Series, and the World Cup final in 2006 had more viewers than any World Series game since 2005 .)

I still don’t particularly care for the NFL, but must admit the experience in London has given me a new respect for the league’s efforts to reach out internationally. No question in mind exists today that the NFL has a presence in the British Isles, and is likely to continue to grow there, just as World Football continues to grow in the USA.