American Football: The whole nine yards: The NFL comes to Wembley

The NFL comes to Wembley tomorrow to put on a show the American way. Stan Hey reports on how the other football is winning over the 51st State
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The Independent Online

If you wanted to organise a small war there's a chance that America's National Football League could do a better job than the Pentagon. Tomorrow, the second in a series of five annual matches between two NFL teams takes place at Wembley Stadium, this time between the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers. And despite the precedent of last year's game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants, this year's event has still taken a huge amount of planning.

Not the least of the challenges was finding teams willing to travel to Europe at the height of the regular season, with one of them "giving up" a home game, New Orleans in this case. Then there was the transportation of players, coaches, physiotherapists, doctors, kit men, match officials, cheerleaders, security and all their specialist equipment. Training facilities had to be organised, together with promotional events, interviews, sponsorship and match day entertainment (The Stereophonics).

Football remains the most watched and therefore the wealthiest of the "big four" of American sports. In the 16-game regular season, 32 teams compete for the right to advance as one of the 12 teams in the play-offs, and they provide a thrilling pageant through America's autumn and winter. Take the Giants' gutsy win at snowbound, sub-zero Lambeau Field to see off the Green Bay Packers last January; or the heart-break of the New England Patriots losing their season-long unbeaten record in last February's Super Bowl to a last-ditch Giants' field goal. Why would anyone want to uproot such a narrative and plant it overseas?

If you check any NFL statements, usually issued by their impressive Commissioner, Roger Goodell, you will hear benign corporate phrases such as "responding to fan interest" , "sharing the experience" or "extending the sports landscape". Behind the words are the deals – precisely because football is so huge, it needs to feed on a bigger audience. Since last year's Wembley game, NFL UK, one of six international outposts of the main operation, reports "a 40 per cent increase in British viewing of the sport". And, as last year, the NFL have cut a deal with the BBC to show the game live alongside Sky, anxious that terrestrial viewers get a look as well as satellite subscribers.

This irks Sky, who broadcast most of the games, but shows that the NFL is happy to put its own interests before Rupert Murdoch's. So the London games make commercial sense. They also act as an informal apology by the NFL, particularly to British fans, for abruptly terminating the European league 18 months ago, as losses became unsustainable.

For, ever since Channel 4 started covering NFL games in 1982, British interest has been strong both in watching and playing the game. Those late-night broadcasts were ideal for the lad-and-lager market and soon there was enough interest for local teams to start forming.

The London Ravens took on the Manchester Spartans in the first official league game in 1983, and by 1987 recent graduate Sean Payton had come over to join up with the Leicester Panthers, who featured a young Martin Johnson, the future England rugby captain, in its defence. As for Payton, he'll be on duty tomorrow, as head coach of the Saints.

"Our team consisted of about six Americans, the rest were British," Payton recalls. "These guys would do jobs during the day, practise at night and play weekends. They were passionate about playing. Though I could never understand the English guys drinking warm beer after the game. And as for the kebabs..."

The game blossomed in England but only like a field of wild flowers. There were rival leagues, not much sponsorship or expert coaching and the standard of play was haphazard. To support development the NFL played a series of "Summer Bowls" at Wembley, mostly with teams' practice squads. Even so, 86,000 fans came to watch Chicago play Dallas in 1986. The NFL now knew they had a new fan base, so the European League was set up, mostly featuring American players who hadn't made the draft after college plus a few promising Brits. London had its own team, the Monarchs, while Edinburgh hosted the Scottish Claymores, complete with rugby hero Gavin Hastings as their kicker.

For around 10 years, NFL Europe worked, though crowds were never huge. The Monarchs abdicated in 1998 with the Claymores blunted in 2004. Other franchises in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain struggled on, with Hamburg reduced to giving errant sprinter Dwain Chambers a try-out at wide receiver, but by 2007 its time was up. A few Brits crossed the pond to try their hand at the professional game, while a handful of the American college discards went back and made it big-time – the most exalted being quarterback Kurt Warner, of the Amsterdam Admirals, who led the St Louis Rams to Super Bowl victory in 2000, and is currently firing up the Arizona Cardinals.

So now the British diet of American football consists of one real NFL game a year but tomorrow's is vital to both the Chargers and Saints, who have matching three-win and four-loss records and need to get a move on if they are to make the play-offs.

Both quarterbacks, Drew Brees (Saints) and Philip Rivers (Chargers) regularly rack up over 300 yards in games. And Rivers is still chippy about two of his draft contemporaries, Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh) and Eli Manning (Giants), winning Super Bowls already. The 86,000 sell-out crowd, wearing shirts of all 32 NFL teams, will also see stars like the Chargers' running-back LaDainian ("LT") Tomlinson and the Saints' hard-hitting tight end Jeremy Shockey. But, like America next January, there'll be no Bush – Saints' running back Reggie is sidelined.

Among those joining the huge tail-gate party from 11am tomorrow will be British veterans from the Streatham Olympians, the Birmingham Bulls and the Brighton B52s, together with those who carry the torch for the game, the 3,000 players of the British Universities American Football League. And there'll be those who never played but watched the fuzzy pictures as Washington's John Riggins took the Dolphins apart in 1983's Super Bowl, or when Chicago's William "The Refrigerator" Perry iced the Patriots in 1986.

Gridiron filings: NFL in numbers

*New York Giants' Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots this year was the second most watched programme in US television history, with 97.5m viewers. The only show to attract more viewers was the "M*A*S*H" finale in February 1983, which drew 106m.

*Super Bowl XLIII will mark the first occasion that a 30-second commercial will cost £1.9m. Despite the increase on this year's £1.7m, broadcasters NBC have already sold all but 10 of the in-game advertisement slots.

*A crowd of 81,176 watched the New York Giants face Miami Dolphins at Wembley on a damp Sunday last October. The game generated £2m in gate receipts, but the decision to stage the game at Wembley was criticised due to the damage caused to the pitch.

*Despite the popularity of the NFL in Britain, at the time of its closure in June 2007, NFL Europe was losing close to £18.5m a year, primarily due to poor attendances.

*One of the most recognisable players was the popular former Chicago Bears and London Monarch defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry who stood out with his 6ft 2in, 382lb frame.