There is a sport called football. It is played, almost literally, in every single recognized country on the whole of the Earth. So, you know, it’s popular. It is called football because one only needs two elements to play it: a foot and a ball. We call it soccer here; an English shortening of the phrase association football. (American football is, by comparison, the most ludicrously named sport on the planet. Seriously, where would you rank on the scale of importance in our game?) Soccer lives on the dirt roads of Cameroon, in the slums of Peru and on the grandest of scales, in the most spectacular of stadiums, in front of the most remarkably entertaining supporters, across the continent of Europe.
Europe. The seductive beauty the NFL has been trying to penetrate for more than a decade.
Remember NFL Europe? Of course you don’t. Asking an NFL fan about the details of NFL Europe is the equivalent of asking an English Premier League supporter about the result of the Seattle Sounders v. Portland Timbers MLS match. They’ve got Eric Ripert wrapping their scallops in prosciutto and you want them to help pick your 2-for-$20 at Applebee’s. NFL Europe was not second rate football. That would be played in the SEC on Saturday. It was not third rate football. That would be one of those games where Georgia Tech racks up 3 or 400 yards rushing and 18 yards passing. It was not even fourth rate football. That usually involves Rutgers. NFL Europe ranked somewhere between the UFL and the Friday night action at that high school from Go Tigers! but contained neither the minor star power of the former nor the atmosphere of the latter.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has a sort of manifest destiny approach to league expansion. He believes this is not only a sport the world wants, but also a sport they need. Sound familiar? Needless to say it’s been tried before with political doctrines, religions…etc. Goodell wants football to be a global game but does not understand, like most Americans, the game’s lack of global appeal. The experience of sitting through a football game and soccer match, either live or in front of a television set, could not be less similar. Soccer is a flowing, uninterrupted game of subtlety. It is called “the beautiful game” because it requires patience and precision of thoughts both from its participants and its viewers. It is not a better game, by any means, but simply an antithetical one. Europeans do not want to sit through three plus hours of sport with one hour of commercial breaks. We don’t seem to mind. Hell, we give the commercial breaks co-star billing on football’s biggest night!
For the most part, it is not Londoners who embrace this game. It is either (a) American tourists eager for the experience of watching their beloved team/game on foreign soil or (b) American ex-pats working in the Gerkin who adopted Arsenal upon arrival at Heathrow but have never been able to subjugate their love for the Cleveland Browns. (I watched the 2003 NFL Draft at a large sports bar near Trafalgar Square with a man who fit this exact description.) If the British show up to watch the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Wembley it’ll be for the same reason they’d take in the circus there: it’s an interesting thing to look at when it comes around every year.
The NFL’s game in London is an irrelevant nuisance. It is the act of desperate league (see: that outdoor NHL thing) and not the most profitable sports league in the western hemisphere. Roger Goodell’s tenure at the top began with a portrait of himself as Football U’s Dean of Discipline, doling out fines like stuffed monkeys on the boardwalk and preaching the sanctity of being allowed entry in the NFL fraternity with the fervor of a Baptist minister. It has since been marred by April’s draft day boofest and the death of his coveted 18-game season in labor negotiations. Goodell isn’t losing his power because he doesn’t have all that much power to lose. He’s the front man for the owner’s band, nothing more. But if he wants his time as commissioner to be meaningful, Mr. Goodell should spend more time informing referees that all tackles are not illegal and concerning himself with genuine issues of player safety. He should worry less about giving the Glazers this London game every year and focus on ending the eight blackouts a year in Tampa. He should find a way to get his television network on the air in the world’s largest media market.
Still the London game continues, extending for the next five years. And there are event hints that Goodell wants a franchise in England. Will it happen? I wouldn’t be surprised. Will it work? Did the the Barcelona Dragons outgain the Berlin Thunder in the 2004 World Bowl?