LONDON — It’s all a jolly good show here for the NFL as the league trumpets its success in bringing American football to the United Kingdom.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke Saturday at an NFL fan rally and told the crowd in Churchillian fashion that it was time they got their own franchise. The league is promoting the fact that two games will be played here next year as a result of a rising demand. The Brits just can’t get enough of A-gap blitzes and in-cut routes. Harrods is going to start stocking helmets and shoulder pads. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker are like the reverse John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
This is a narrative so far from reality that you would expect it to be coming from Yawkey Way. There are some knowledgeable and dedicated NFL fans here in the UK, yes, but the league’s clarion call is falling on a lot of deaf ears. An NFL franchise in London would be like a deep pass against the Patriots’ secondary — it wouldn’t turn many heads.
The big football game everyone is talking about that will be played Sunday in London isn’t Patriots-Rams. It’s Chelsea-Manchester United, a clash of English Premier League clubs who are at the top of the standings and spend money in a fashion that would make the Bronx Bombers blanch. The Merseyside derby between John Henry’s Liverpool club and intracity rival Everton is also garnering more interest.
To sample just how big is the locals’ appetite for football, American style, yours truly went to a pub to see if punts and pints mix.
I ventured to the Red Lion, right around the corner from No. 10 Downing St. From the bar window you can look across the street at the balcony of the former Ministry of Health (now Her Majesty’s Treasury) building, where Winston Churchill addressed an adoring crowd on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day, telling them, “This is your victory!”
The NFL is going to have wait a bit longer to win the hearts and minds of the British people.
I asked Gavin Waite of Winchester what he thought of the NFL game. He wasn’t familiar with the Patriots or the Rams.
What about American football in general? “There is a lot of starting and stopping. I have no idea about the rules. It seems overly dramatized,” said Waite.
Can you name any players? “No. Wait, O.J. Simpson played football, right?”
Somehow I think O.J. got omitted from the NFL UK literature, probably an oversight.
You can always count on the Brits to display their legendary wit. When asked what the quarterback does, Waite replied cheekily, “I don’t know. Probably sleep with a cheerleader.”
Gathering with his mates, 28-year-old Londoner Liam Wood said he didn’t have a clue who was playing in the NFL game on Sunday. The game he cared about was Chelsea-Man U. But Wood was more familiar with the mechanics of the quarterback position.
“Yeah, the guy who receives the ball and throws it,” said Wood, who then offered an unsolicited criticism of the NFL game. “You got 15-minute quarters, right? But then it takes all day to play. It lasts for 19 hours. They stop to sponsor everything. There are sponsors for everything. Even the camera is sponsored by Budweiser.”
Liam, don’t give the NFL any ideas.
Wood was a Tom Brady fan, though — sort of.
“I know him because he is married to Gisele. She is fit. How did he get her?” said Wood.
Memo to NFL UK office: feature more marketing with Gisele Bundchen.
Now I know why Brady loves to travel across Europe and South America during the offseason. He becomes just some guy Gisele schleps around the world with her, not one of the preeminent figures in American sport.
Gar Samuel, a 25-year-old who runs a British-based football blog called “The Pulling Linemen” and also coaches a local university team, acknowledged at the Patriots’ media availability on Friday that the NFL is still a niche sport in the UK.
“It’s going to be, I think, a very slow process to grow the sport, but it’s definitely growing,” said Samuel. “There is no question about that. I think what’s more important is it’s not just growing, but fans are becoming more and more dedicated fans.”
Part of the NFL’s problem is that the Patriots-Rams game is more invisible than A-Rod with runners in scoring position, surprising considering this is the sixth straight season the NFL has staged a contest in London.
“I haven’t heard about it, and we read quite a bit. It’s not really publicized here,” said 34-year-old Matt Brazier.
The day after Belichick and Brady addressed the media there was a four-paragraph blurb in the Independent. The Times of London had a story on the Patriots-Rams game — from 2002. Most of the Times piece, page 20 of the “Sport” section, recounted Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Times had an offbeat summary of the weekend television sports offerings that described the NFL game as “a spectacle where nobody knows what’s going on but is best regarded as kiss-chase choreographed by the Village People.”
The fact is that if a British reporter went to a Boston sports bar and started asking questions about Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, and Robin van Persie, they would get some similar comical responses. We’re a bit more attuned to English soccer because of its effect on the Red Sox.
Maybe what the NFL needs is for an Premier League owner to buy an NFL franchise stateside. Then skeptical Brits can blame the American football club for siphoning off the funds and focus of their owner.
In the meantime, the NFL has quite a ways to go before it can declare victory in Europe.