By Ravi Ubha
LONDON -- For any 24-hour sports news station, filling time is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately for viewers of Sky Sports -- Britain's version of ESPN -- that meant rambling drivel with members of the Minnesota Vikings, not long after they touched down in London last week.
The team was different, but the questions were largely the same as in years past when the NFL has come to London. As the "home" team, the Vikings were obliged to spend most of the week in England. How was the flight? How are you feeling? What do you think of London? That last question was particularly amusing, given that mostly what the players encountered were the tarmac, terminal building, duty-free shops and environs of Heathrow Airport.
These are NFLers, so they were pretty polite. Not that all are so inclined, but these questions were the hardly irritating kind, centered around a three-game losing streak or leaky defense. These guys are used to dealing with journalists, unlike the coddled soccer stars that ply their trade in the Premier League. (The EPL may be the most watched league in the world, and several of its clubs rank among the most valuable sports teams on the planet, but when it comes to player access, that league must be near the bottom of the Guinness barrel.)
Both the Vikings and their similarly winless opponent, Pittsburgh, were showcased on Saturday as a fan-fest descended on Regent Street. One of Europe's busiest shopping thoroughfares was thus a no-go area for vehicles as the "razzmatazz" -- as the manager of my tennis club put it when referring to the NFL's annual pit stop to London -- unfolded. He was being complimentary.
"I love the show of it," said the manager, Nick Bass, a larger-than-life figure in his sixties and fan of another contact sport, rugby. "It's fantastic." By game day, the party moved to Wembley, home of the international series since 2007 and a mecca for soccer supporters, albeit ones used to watching England's laborious national team. That's hardly a show these days.
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Local laws forbid tailgating at the stadium -- lighten up, health and safety folks -- so British NFL diehards took over a pub a short walk away. Adam Goldstein was one of those enjoying the festivities. A Chicago Bears fan since he was five, Goldstein wrote a book, Tailgate to Heaven, after visiting every NFL stadium during the 2008 season. He sold his apartment to finance the trip -- it cost about $50,000 -- and temporarily split with his girlfriend, Steph, who couldn't understand how a gentle chap like Goldstein could be so fascinated with a foreign, hard-hitting sport. Ultimately there were no hard feelings. She eventually became hooked, joining the drama teacher on his adventures, and the two are now engaged.
Goldstein enjoyed the freedom of picking his own team and was drawn to the Bears due to the personalities on offer, like Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon and the Fridge. His first brush with tailgating came when the Bears beat Arizona, 24-23, on the road in 2006. Although English soccer grounds are now safer places, if you're a fan of the road team and wearing its jersey, you still don't want to be hanging around the stadium for too long following the match -- especially if the visitor wins. Sitting in the same section as the home team wouldn't be advisable at more than a few venues.
Goldstein said he had experienced soccer's hooliganism up close as a child. Tailgating was thus a delightful revelation. "People in Britain don't take a grill and a satellite and a TV to a car park," Goldstein said. "Soccer fans don't get the same kind of fun, or good stuff that the NFL brings. The away fans cooked me food. It was nuts. I thought they were going to poison me. I'd get stabbed at [London soccer clubs] Leyton Orient or Tottenham just if I wore the away jersey, let alone have them cooking for me."
Goldstein watched the Vikings beat the Steelers 34-27 in a thriller, and he'll be in the stands again when the second regular season game is played at Wembley, featuring Jacksonville and San Francisco, next month. Chalk him up as a season-ticket holder if a franchise surfaces in London. "I think it could work," the 33-year-old said. "Let's try it at the right time and give it a go."
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One game in London a season tested the (Thames) waters. With positive results, it's now two, or viewed in another manner, one-fourth of a team's home games in the regular season. A major commitment.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's comments to the New York Post in June suggest a London franchise is inevitable. "I think there's a substantial amount of support for everything we're doing," said the NFL UK's managing director, Alistair Kirkwood. "That starts from the head guy downwards." Whether potentially it's an expansion team -- or a current team that moves, which is more complicated -- isn't known, although billionaire Shahid Khan owns both the Jaguars and soccer's Fulham in west London. Goodell told the Post that the league would "ask Jacksonville to play potentially two" regular season games in the English capital, if the next step was to elevate to a three-game NFL package.
Any who suggest the league should heed what happened to London's entrant in NFL Europe -- it flopped -- before planting a proper team across the Atlantic are being slightly pessimistic. Inserting a second- or third-division English soccer outfit in New York wouldn't work, either. This is the real thing. Another factor aiding London is that, by nature, the majority of fans in England support their teams in the Premier League, even when slumps occur. Drop-offs in attendance aren't as sharp as in North America. "If you have a UK team, what's interesting is that it has a different dynamic to having two neutral teams come over," said Kirkwood. "So you'll automatically grow your fan base just by actually having something that's considered to be London or British."
Eight home games, as opposed to 81 or 41, appears to be a sustainable figure, even for gargantuan Wembley, and a permanent shift to Europe wouldn't take place for several years yet, giving the NFL more time to multiply its core fan base of two million in the UK and educate them further. ("Yeah, all the rules can be a little confusing," Bass said.)
The average attendance of the seven regular-season games held in London thus far sits at more than 82,000, which would have placed it second last season behind Dallas. NFL lovers from other parts of the continent -- especially Germany, the nation with the largest contingent in NFL Europe -- could hop to London and return home the same day, as part of a relatively cheap experience.
"If I were speaking to you in early 2007, your questions would have been: 'What makes you think a regular season game will work? Isn't this a circus coming to town?'" said Kirkwood. "Now it's the other way around. I have media going, 'This is all good, but when is it going to be bigger? When are you going to have a team?' It actually shows we're doing something right. We have tripled our fan base in the last four years. Our TV ratings have more than doubled."
Whether London and opponents that play in London would face a competitive disadvantage is a consideration that shouldn't be overlooked, and surely won't be by the NFL owners. But perhaps the question is edging towards, "Does the league want a team in London?" as opposed to "Can London support one?"
It's a long way from 2002, when Kirkwood made a presentation as a "side project" to Goodell, then the NFL's chief operating officer, and was told this: If he could land one million viewers for the Super Bowl that season, broader plans would be explored. If not, forget the idea. He had only two months to find a TV station to show the game and drum up the requisite interest. "The day after, we got our ratings, and we got 1,040,000," Kirkwood said. "We made it by the skin of our teeth.
"From then on, we got asked to do more plans, and as we built the thing up, by 2007 we were ready to play our first regular season game. We grew from a very small standing start."
On Sunday, When former Pro Bowler Greg Jennings caught a short pass from Matt Cassel in the first quarter and proceeded to weave through the Steelers defense for a 70-yard score, the soccer aficionados at Wembley might have been forgiven for likening the veteran to Lionel Messi -- who, with the ball at his feet and not in his clutches of course, has similarly danced through defenders with speed and agility. Generally, though, the gasps and noticeable crowd interventions occurred mostly when they should have. "It really did feel like a home game," Cassel said.
Progress. Project London continues on Oct. 27.
London-based Ravi Ubha's work has appeared on ESPN.com and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.