NFL: After the success of the International Series at Wembley, can London really take on a franchise of its own?
The Minnesota Vikings' victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the tip of the iceberg as the UK braces itself for an NFL storm
Not for the first time, the National Football League International Series game at Wembley was a giant success. After a couple of years where the support and understanding of the game was questioned by even the players, it seems the sport has broken through the United Kingdom barrier with as much force as a 60-yard Adrian Peterson rush.
For that’s what the fans at the historical football stadium were treated to on Sunday, as last season’s Most Valuable Player lived up to the pre-game talk and carried the Minnesota Vikings to their first victory of the season, confining the Pittsburgh Steelers to their fourth straight defeat this month.
Which brings us to the question; with the NFL staging a regular season game in London each year since 2007, can the nation’s capital really sustain its own, competitive team?
On the face of things, it is more than capable. With the Vikings flying across the Atlantic on Monday, they began a week full of media events, public meetings and open training sessions, while the Steelers' late arrival on Friday somewhat hindered their participation. However, the NFL on Regent Street takeover was a masterstroke, providing fans from both sides of the pond the chance to turn game-day into a full blown weekend, not to mention the financial boost it provided for the merchandise vendors and the league itself.
But it’s the Sunday that counts, and what a Sunday it turned out to be. Arrive early in the day and you won’t be disappointed. From the game-day plaza to the renowned Tailgate Party, fans will find plenty to do. With both teams presented on stage upon arrival including interviews with all the key players, it provides an early interaction between those in the stands and those on the pitch, something that is all too rare in the all-conquering football upon these shores.
Added to that was the Vikings entertainment programme, packed full of everything that springs to mind when you think of the word ‘American Football’. The steel drum band, named the ‘Skol Line’, provides an upbeat and cheery rhythm whenever the atmosphere even considers simmering down, while the Vikings Cheerleader squad are equally entertaining in more ways than one.
This writer had the pleasure to speak to a number of the 2013 squad, and learned that the competition is as cut-throat among the ladies as it is to claim one of the 53 berths in the playing roster, with each participant having to bring an academic understanding to rival their dancing and singing ability, which has to be said was rather impressive considering my little time for dancing in itself. Despite this though, the term ‘in the presence of angels’ springs to mind, with each member displaying the same, identical smile and pose throughout the entire day. Perhaps they are cut from the squad for frowning?
The Vikings' cheerleaders entertained the crowd during the break
Regardless, they along with the club mascot Viktor the Viking do a terrific job in livening up the crowd, while the American stadium announcer energised the crowd to fever pitch alone. The pre-game show, perhaps not quite to everyone’s taste with rapper Tinie Tempah performing, was still very impressive, with Viktor, the cheerleaders and a pyrotechnic display all joining in the act.
But nothing had prepared Wembley for when the teams entered the field. The noise produced in northwest London will have been heard in North America, such was the roar for both sides. But with the Steelers Irish contingent in good attendance thanks to their owners' - the Rooney family - close ties with the Emerald isle, there was genuine support for the men in black and yellow.
This intense support appeared to inspire the majority of the English and neutral supporters to back the Vikings, the adopted home side for the day, but you could see the energy filter through to the players from the moment they took to the field, none more so when the undoubted star of the show Peterson made is delayed entrance – a deafening noise that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
The event was much helped by such a thrilling, close-fought game, which helped to keep the fans engrossed in the action – cheering every first down for the Vikings, booing every third down for the Steelers – Wembley could’ve been Minneapolis for all we knew.
Pittsburgh Steelers' fans turned out in force to support their side
And when Peterson, Matt Cassel and Greg Jennings looked to have broken the 2009 Super Bowl champions, Steelers' quarter-back Ben Roesthlisberger did what he has done so many times before. Armed with his disbelieving ability to escape the defensive rush when a sack appears a certainty, he took the Steelers to within 20-yards of taking the match to overtime, bringing the crowd back into the game at the same time after a brief third-quarter lull.
It wasn't until the end of the third-quarter that the first Mexican wave broke out around the stadium, a mightily impressive one albeit. In comparison, during England’s recent World Cup qualifier against Moldova, it took just seven minutes before the Three Lions faithful resorted to such boredom fillers. Many would have expected the reverse.
“It was great,” admitted running-back Peterson. “It was full of energy. The fans went crazy. It was just a great atmosphere to play in.
“The people of London have welcomed us and been great to us. I've had a wonderful time. Just being around London, it's beautiful. It was coming out that tunnel and just looking out and seeing that purple and yellow, it was a good mix. But it was full of energy. It felt like a home game.”
Peterson breaks clear of the struggling LaMarr Woodley on his way to a 60-yard touchdown
“I was actually shocked that it was a home game type feel,” added safety Harrison Smith. “I thought it was going to be split maybe some just NFL fans that came kind of for the show. But it really felt like a home game out there. There was a great crowd interaction and getting loud on third down, getting excited for us. It was quite a sight out there.”
However, despite the players’ approval, here lies the problem. The fan base is there, the stadium is there, the financial viability is there and so is everything else. Except the players.
For them, coming to the UK is an experience, but it isn’t a reality. Ask the fresh, eager and excited collegiate graduates that go into the annual draft where their future lies, and you’ll rarely hear them answer the London Vikings, or the England Pigeons, or whatever franchise name is decided. Perhaps some that might be interested in moving to London for half-a-year at a time will be those entering the twilight of their career, yet they will require a major pay day in the process.
With a UK-based franchise inevitable, forgive me for remaining sceptical that success will be a dream and nothing more. While the experience of the International Series will be one to remember, a franchise in itself may be a step too far. You only have to look upon these shores to see how hard expansion can be. Rugby League’s recent venture into Wales proved to be a disappointing one, with the Crusaders RL disbanding after their financial collapse in 2011, becoming the North Wales Crusaders who now compete outside of the Super league.
But, for now, the show must go on as the saying goes, and from a fans' point of view, it can only be a good thing for the sport.
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