Kovacevic: Will NFL, London bridge gap?
LONDON — Passport officer at Heathrow glanced at my bio page, peered up over his glasses and asked: “Why all the people from Pittsburgh?”
I tried in a couple sentences to sum up Steelers Nation, failed miserably.
Not that it mattered.
“All right, then.”
Off I went, and so it went …
Driver of the airport shuttle bus: “American football? Here?”
Front-desk lady at the hotel: “My husband likes it. He has a couple of their shirts. It’s second for him after cricket.”
Barista at Starbucks: “Oh, the American football game? Right!”
So he’d heard of it?
There really are people here in one of civilization’s grandest cities who not only know of the NFL showcase here Sunday between the Steelers and Vikings but also are genuinely excited. More than 86,000 tickets have been sold, and only 6,000 are needed for the expected sellout at Wembley Stadium. Regent Street is draped in banners boasting of the game, with sports bars there promoting the cause and even a few locals decked out in Troy Polamalu or Adrian Peterson gear.
But at the bloke-in-the-pub level, the reaction is an almost universal shrug.
And no, wiseacre, that isn’t because neither of these teams could declare a victory upon passing through customs.
Rather, I’ll humbly submit, it’s that the potential patrons don’t get all the stoppages.
Let me rewind a good bit.
Vacationing in Holland in the late 1990s, I brought — dragged, actually — a friend to a World League game between the host Amsterdam Admirals and the fantastically named Scottish Claymores. This, I was sure, would represent my McDonald’s-in-Mogadishu moment, when I would bestow upon her a gift from the promised land that was far better than any soccer, tennis, Formula One racing or Tour de Whatever that she’d ever seen.
Well, she did have a good time, as it turned out. But only because the Admirals’ in-game entertainment folks were smart enough to liven up the stoppages with booming Euro-pop that had the place hopping like then-teens at a Spice Girls show.
Best as I recall, our evening played out thusly …
She: “Why do they stop all the time?”
Me, never actually having pondered such sacrilege: “Well, they have to come up with the next play.”
She: “They can’t do that before the game?”
Me: “Well …”
She: “If they wanted to play rugby, why didn’t they just play rugby?”
Me, trying to picture rugby: “But this isn’t …”
She: “Can we go?”
This might be hard to fathom for those of us who find American football supremely invigorating, including the stoppages that afford time to study the schemes and anticipate, but I’ve heard this same complaint for years in various treks across Europe. They see it as nuts that any sport in motion stops and resets about 150 times per game. They ridicule it. There are countries where you’ll actually hear folks call it “American-style rugby” with much the same disdain we say “Australian-rules football.”
Jack Flanagan, lifelong Londoner and Steelers fan — his great-great-grandfather once spent time in Pittsburgh — tried to explain: “People get put off because soccer is a very fast-paced game, and they’ve never seen an American football game and assume it’s stop-start. I do try to educate them.”
A disappointing number of Americans still find soccer dull, but that disconnect doesn’t come close to that of Europeans and our football. We’ve at least seen soccer, even if it’s just a pack of 6-year-olds chasing the ball like wolves after a steak. They hadn’t seen American football here in any meaningful quantity until the past decade or so and then almost entirely on TV.
Against these odds, maybe against the will of the British people, the NFL forges ahead with its London goals. The most obvious is to grow the game and revenues many times over, but I’ll bet a big part is Roger Goodell being legacy-minded as the first commissioner to take his sport overseas. A report in the Times of London this week quoted a league exec as promising the city will have a franchise by decade’s end, and I wouldn’t doubt it. When sports’ most powerful figure wants something, he’ll get it.
Never mind that the old London Monarchs of the World League/NFL Europe lasted only from 1991-98, and average attendance was dragging along at 16,343 when the franchise folded. NFL Europe as a whole died in 2007 with five teams based in Germany — where U.S. Armed Forces would fill the stands — plus the Admirals, whose fans probably were too busy dancing to know they were dissolved.
I did find another Brit who offered hope, if only because he volunteered the word “Steelers” as soon as he heard I was from Pittsburgh. He then asked if “The Bus” would be playing this weekend.
When I broke word of Jerome Bettis’ retirement a half-decade ago, he scowled: “Bloody shame. Nothing could stop that guy!”
Nothing but the whistles.