American Football: Gods of gridiron go on offensive for wider appeal

The NFL aims to thrill British and European fans at Wembley tomorrow. But, says David Owen, the game is also a crucial part of a marketing strategy
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From a towering animated model footballer to cheerleaders posing with Parliamentarians at Westminster, nobody does razzmatazz quite like the National Football League.

It has been hard to miss the build-up to tomorrow's American football showdown at Wembley between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants, largely because of the 26ft replica of the Dolphins' Jason Taylor that has been popping up King Kong-like at locations in the London area from Canary Wharf to Bluewater.

The occasion marks the first time that a competitive NFL game has been played outside North America and signals that the masters of one of the world's least international major sports are finally serious about branching out beyond their home market.

"We want to be a top five sport [in the UK]," says Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL UK. Kirkwood describes London as " the gateway to Europe" and talks about trying to make "a big statement" about the NFL's ambitions, while recognising that other leading sports are doing "incredibly well". He admits, too, to not getting much sleep this week.

One of the reasons for American football's comparatively weak international footprint is its immense strength at home. Kirkwood says that a recent match between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots attracted a television audience of 30 million. This, he says, is 10 million more than any other programme this month.

The sport, in particular its seasonal climax, the fabled Super Bowl, enjoys a unique, quasi-religious status in America that it cannot hope to duplicate elsewhere. More toilets are flushed in the US at half-time of this grand finale than in any other period. Not for nothing has the cartoonist Ralph Steadman written of how "an American is born-again in a football stadium ".

That said, the gridiron game enjoyed a spell in the British limelight two decades ago, most notably in January 1986 when four million viewers watched the Chicago Bears beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

Phil Simms, a former Giants quarterback who was named Most Valuable Player in the 1987 Super Bowl when the Giants beat the Denver Broncos 39-20, says there is more throwing in the game now, which should make it easier for spectators who will pack out Wembley to follow the action.

Now a sportscaster, Simms says that his 15-year NFL career now "seems like it was another life... I never disliked the fact that it was physical. But now if someone taps me on the shoulder, I will say, 'That's a bit too hard'. I turned that button off," he says.

Much of the credit for the Giants' success in this period – they also won Super Bowl XXV – has been attributed to the head coach, Bill Parcells. Simms says Parcells was "one of those guys who could push you physically to the limit and mentally he would push you right to the edge".

The vast majority of Sunday's crowd – 87 per cent – will be Britons, although only about one in seven of these will come from London and the South-east and the NFL's Kirkwood points to a bus-load of 30 expected to roll in from the Shetlands. Only six to seven per cent will be US citizens, with a similar proportion of Europeans. The Danes are said to make up the biggest Continental European contingent, followed by Germany.

In the circumstances, it is a pity that the match may turn out to be a tad one-sided. The Dolphins, being hosted by Wasps rugby club, are in a mess, having lost their first seven matches this season. The Giants, being hosted by Roman Abramovich's Chelsea, by contrast, have won five straight, including a 33-15 success over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday.

Simms says the present Giants line-up is "an exciting NFL football team", explosive on both sides of the ball and with a proven ability to sack the opposing quarterback. Stars include the quarterback Eli Manning, "little " brother of the better-known Peyton of the Indianapolis Colts, Plaxico Burress, a wide receiver whose strength and speed make him one of Manning's chief targets, and the London-born Osi Umenyiora, a top-class defensive end.

The Dolphins' hopes rest with Jason Taylor, the model for the huge so-called "animatronic" and reigning NFL defensive player of the year. Simms says they are currently "about as low as you can get as a pro football team... I would be very surprised if the Giants don't win. Very."

The NFL's Kirkwood emphasises with some justification how quickly NFL franchises can bounce back after a period of adversity. Nevertheless, it is hard not to conclude that their best chance tomorrow would be if they tried to sneak the animated 26ft Jason Taylor on to the field.

Not that the possibility of a mismatch – or Kirkwood's revelation that the Dolphin cheerleaders are wearing more clothes than usual owing to our autumnal weather – are likely to dampen the ardour of those in the stands, who will be determined to enjoy what promises to be a great set-piece sporting occasion.

I wonder what our own giant replica, the 20ft statue of Bobby Moore, England's World Cup-winning captain, will make of it all from his vantage point beside the new stadium, looking down on to Olympic Way.

Sky Sports 2, 4.30pm, tomorrow