The NFL street team invaded London last week, popping into hotel lobbies and coffee shops, holding impromptu pep rallies in various circles and squares. In advance of Sunday's Week 8 game at Wembley Stadium between the Rams and Patriots, these NFL missionaries came to spread the gospel and civilize the benighted natives.
It's been five years since the death of NFL Europe, but the league hasn't given up its global ambitions. And what better place to establish a beachhead than the U.K.? There's a rich sporting culture. No language barrier. A wealth of potential TV partners. The cynic might point out that the U.K.'s lax regulations on sports gambling also tip the odds in the NFL's favor.
Next year, there will be two regular season games at Wembley. "The goal is to be a top five sport in the U.K.," says Chris Parsons, vice president of NFL International. "Right now we're around Number 7 and we were down around Number 18 when we started [in 2007]."
While the Patriots didn't arrive until Friday and generally treated the game as any given Sunday, the Rams went all Anglophile, staying in a Downton Abbey--style country estate, practicing on a soccer field, riding the Tube, and posing in the middle of Abbey Road. On Friday, they held a team dinner at the Tower of London.
Sunday's game sold out and most of the 84,000 fans appeared to be confused (by the many penalties), bemused (by the breaks in the action), but ultimately enthused by the very unsoccerlike offensive action. The Rams scored on their opening drive, then the Patriots ran off 45 straight points on their way to a 45--7 win.
Afterward, there were a few disgruntled types—Old England Patriots, as it were—who perceived the game as an unwelcome intrusion. "It's a sport only a mother could love," one fan groused as he left.
There were also a few fans like Johann Mann and Par Haglund, Patriots supporters who'd come from Stockholm, but could just as easily have come from Worcester. They'd made a weekend out of it, arriving in time for a Saturday pep rally, paying roughly $200 a seat for tickets, cheering touchdowns, booing bad calls and behaving like just the kind of NFL diehard the league wants to attract. "Luckily," said Par, "we have a bye week now."
Most fans were in the middle. Not a gripping game, but a gripping spectacle. The NFL ought to be pleased, too. An ocean away from home base, a stadium filled with fans spent an evening watching a different kind of football. If the occasion marked the first time Tom Brady was referred to as "the lad who throws the ball down the pitch," well, really, who's the worse for it?
THEY SAID IT
"This is a breath of fresh air—cool, very cool, cold air."
Two-time Olympic hurdler, on being selected as a member of the U.S. bobsled team in her first foray into winter sports
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