American Football: If it's late October... it must be NFL at Wembley
Another sell-out spectacular shows gridiron is here to stay – and expand, says Nick Szczepanik
The NFL has found a new permanent home every autumn. The men at the top of American football believe that the appetite exists in Britain for more than a single annual fix of their product, having promised to deliver gridiron to the traditional home of English football in September and October next year. After another sell-out yesterday evening saw the New England Patriots crush the St Louis Rams 45-7 in the sixth regular-season game to be staged here, you get the feeling that they are probably right.
A crowd of 84,004, the second-highest for an International Series fixture in the UK and the second highest NFL crowd this season, paid ticket prices ranging from £50 to £149 even though they probably suspected that the Rams were always likely to be more like lambs. They were duly slaughtered by the Patriots, who probably cannot wait to be invited back to Wembley. They beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers here 35-7 three years ago, when quarterback Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes, and this time he went one better with four.
Until last night neither Brady nor the Patriots had been their usually dominant selves this season, but Wembley was always likely to be a stage on which they put that right. "That was a fun day for us offensively," Brady said. "It's a great venue, a beautiful stadium."
There were empty seats by the end, but that was not so much because the result was a foregone conclusion but because Brady was sitting out the rest of the game after a job well done. So far enough British fans have been quite happy to turn up to see any game, whatever the likely outcome and whether it features a team they support or not. That said, the NFL have been canny enough to persuade at least one big name to travel to London. The visit of the Pittsburgh Steelers next September is certain to be keenly anticipated, as will the return of the San Francisco 49ers in the October game.
The next move will see a less well-known team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, play a game here in each of the next four years, which is expected to tell the NFL whether casual fans will attach themselves to a team that appears regularly, and therefore more about whether London could eventually support an NFL franchise.
Jacksonville, though, were the second choice for the Wembley residency. That was originally supposed to be the Rams, who looked a good fit in view of the fact that Stan Kroenke, their owner, is also Arsenal's majority shareholder. Unfortunately, they had not told their stadium owners, who pointed out that their lease required them to stage all their regular-season games there, and it took careful negotiation even to stage this single game abroad.
That said, the Premier League floated the idea of the "39th game" - fixtures played overseas in addition to the normal 38 game-schedule – without consulting anyone else first. We may never know whether they would have staged their games as expertly as the NFL has done its visits to the UK, with the usual pre-game tailgate event last night and Train playing live – not to mention a speech from London mayor Boris Johnson, in which he described the NFL as "a glorious descendant of rugby union" but also promised to do all he could to bring more American football to Wembley.
The briefest of pre-game glances down Wembley Way would have shown that the crowd was not restricted to those who began watching on Channel 4 back in the 1980s. The NFL is putting a lot of effort into attracting young fans in this country and it appears to be working, while the family-friendliness of the NFL has clearly carried across the Atlantic.
And the NFL have cleverly balanced the need to give its games in London a sense of occasion with the desire to remind spectators that they are at a regular-season game, with all its significance for the race to the Super Bowl. Scores from other games taking place across the pond were flashed up on the scoreboards, while as much as possible was done to remind you that this was technically a Rams "home" game. That included the blue and gold flashpots, individual introductions of the Rams' starters and the gyrations of the Rams' cheerleaders.
The Rams took an early lead with a spectacular touchdown pass from quarterback Sam Bradford, but it was all downhill for them after that as Brady began to dismantle their defence. The Wembley experience has been so successful for the Patriots that they might even want a word with the Jaguars to see if they can take the regular gig instead.
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