They miss “the Fridge” out at Wembley, and the circulation of Touch Down, England’s only weekly on American football, is less than half the 53,000 it hit a few years back, but sports entrepreneurs and analysts say the gridiron, as many non-Americans still call American football, has finally taken firm hold in Britain.
“Put it this way, it’ll never be a No. 1 sport in England,” said Keith Webster, a British sportswriter and long-time American football enthusiast. “It’ll never compete with soccer. But four years on, American football has achieved a solid, hard-core following, and it is certainly a sport that is here to stay.”
Indeed, as London prepared for today’s fifth American Bowl--this year matching the Raiders and the New Orleans Saints in an NFL exhibition game--there has been little of the hype and hoopla that accompanied football’s 1986 London debut, which brought Jim McMahon’s larger-than-life Chicago Bears and America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, to an electrified and overflowing Wembley Stadium.
There have been the obligatory television commercials on the BBC and poster campaigns in the London Underground, but the thrill of something new and different that brought an instant cult following to the sport in its first few years here has been dimmed by time in a nation where football means soccer.
In fact, soccer continued to dominate London’s sports news throughout the week, buoyed by Britain’s unexpectedly strong performance in the World Cup, where it reached the semifinals, and the recent decision that its “hooligan” fans finally were well enough behaved to permit English clubs back into European soccer competition. Not a single mainstream British daily carried an advance story on today’s football match, as they call it here.
For Lance Cone and other veteran American football enthusiasts, part of the problem is simply the faddishness of professional sport.
“We had no heroes here in sport seven years ago,” said Cone, an American expatriate credited with introducing the game in London then. “We were doing poorly in soccer, getting killed in rugby, and American football is the kind of sport that creates heroes.
“This glamorous sport just came along with bigger-than-life heroes like Refrigerator Perry and Jim McMahon, and it took off--especially with the kids, who instantly began worshiping these new imported heroes.”
But now, with England again competitive in the world soccer arena, American football is finally settling in with a limited, yet enthusiastic, following. Cone is chairman and managing director of the British American Football Assn., which oversees several amateur teams playing throughout the country.
The American Bowl, of course, is something else again, according to Wembley’s deputy director and chief executive, Jarvis Astaire, who confidently predicted Friday that today’s game will be a sellout despite the slight drop in popular interest.
“American football, you see, is still really an event for most of the fans who come to the Bowl,” he said. “People don’t go to the Bowl to see a match, as they would a soccer match. They come for a big event. So you find that American football attracts a more affluent audience that admires the scientific aspects of the game. And there will always be an audience for that here in England.”
Astaire is certainly betting on it. During a news conference Friday, Astaire joined with the movers and shakers in the new World League of American Football in announcing that Wembley will be the home of England’s franchise.
The league also announced “Operation Discovery,” a year-long recruitment program that hopes to draft 50 top athletes from around the world to be trained in the finer points of American football and ultimately join the league’s 12 teams, which will consist mostly of American players.
“Our mission is to spread American football all over the world,” declared Joe Bailey, the former Cowboy executive who is vice president and chief operating officer of the NFL-created league, which is expected to begin play next March.
The league will have eight franchises in North America and four in Europe, where teams will be based in London, Barcelona, Spain, Frankfurt, Germany, and Milan.
Already armed with contracts for television coverage by ABC-TV and the USA cable network, as well as plans for similar coverage by networks in Mexico, Canada, Europe and Japan, the league also is gambling that football’s once-a-year-success phenomenon pioneered in London will spread in what Bailey called “the globalization” of football.
Veterans such as Webster, though, remain a bit skeptical. This summer, he said, is a case in point.
“Just notice how even American attention is no longer focused on Wembley this summer,” he said. “This summer, all eyes are on Berlin. Now the 1990 Rams are no more exciting than the Raiders or the Saints, but American football in Berlin? Now that’s a story. That’s a novelty.
“All I’m saying is, that some novelty has worn off a bit here in England, and maybe our fans are looking for something new and different again.”
Today’s game will be televised by NBC at 10 a.m., PDT. . . . Wide receiver Willie Gault is doubtful because of a groin injury. Sam Graddy is expected to start in his place. Dennis Price will start at left cornerback in place of Terry McDaniel, sidelined with a hamstring injury. . . . The Raiders resume training camp at Oxnard on Tuesday.