Many Britons stuck in the ‘80s when it comes to NFL

Special to The Times

LONDON -- Sure, a 26-foot animatronic statue of Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor stood next to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square on Monday, but for pertinence it probably should’ve been William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

And yes, it’s impressive that changing trains at Waterloo means running across advertising placards of Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey, but maybe they should’ve gone with Tom Brady and, really, Dan Marino.

It’s unscientific, gauging the buried NFL tastes of a soccer empire with 60 million citizens, but as the Dolphins and New York Giants aim for the first NFL regular-season game outside North America on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, the United Kingdom probably does have its favorite NFL teams.


Sorry, favourite NFL teams.

They’re probably the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots, with honorable -- sorry, honourable -- mention to the Dolphins.

That’s because the NFL crested in British popularity in the mid-1980s, when a motherland eyeballed its offspring’s loud creation of the 1985 Bears -- especially their Refrigerator -- and 4 million Britons watched the Chicago-New England Super Bowl of January 1986.

That’s also because in that same era, when Britain’s Channel 4 showed weekly NFL highlights, a good many citizens swooned over that dandy young Miami quarterback, Marino.

And that’s also because after interest faded to near nil during the 1990s, the NFL has inched upward again in the 2000s within the vast Premier League soccer shadow, and the misanthropic youths who follow it have glommed on to the dynastic Patriots.

In an NFL-UK online survey, the Patriots won, said NFL-UK’s Henry Hodgson, who also said that’s partly because younger people tend to use websites.

If you’re British and your age starts with “4” and you care even a whit, it’s probably the Bears or Dolphins or maybe the San Francisco 49ers or Washington Redskins. If you’re in your teens or early 20s, it’s probably the Patriots.


If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, oddly, it’s probably nobody.

“The game missed them,” Nick Halling said.

Halling, an uncommonly NFL-astute studio commentator -- he’s better than most of his American counterparts -- for the British network Sky, thinks this quirky popularity history has danced with that of English soccer.

In the 1980s, he reminded, English soccer was “a miserable bloody sport,” with strategic tendencies toward the “dull, boring and defensive,” and a hooliganism problem where going to the stadium meant “a chance of getting your head kicked in.” Along came this NFL, “this brand-new, exciting, colorful sport that you didn’t know anything about.”

Then English soccer branded itself as the Premier League in the early 1990s, shooed its brawlers far from stadiums and began soaring into the global-TV-revenue stratosphere and the global-sports-league ionosphere. The NFL waned.

Sky began airing it somewhat in 1995, and, Halling said, “it’s been clawing its way back ever since.” Some 130 games will avail themselves this season, and Sky’s studio commentators appear during commercial breaks and halftimes across 11 hours on Sundays until the wee hours of Mondays.

The nouveau young fans may be oddballs in their school hallways, but what viewing options they’ve got.

In the television prehistory of 30 years ago, the only hint many Britons had of the NFL came courtesy of one of the 20th century’s foremost American icons, J.R. Ewing, who was fictional if you must be a stickler about it. The opening credits of “Dallas” showed a Cowboys game from atop Texas Stadium and, Halling said, “Most of us before 1982, that was the only thing we knew about American football.”


Then Channel 4 began showing Super Bowls and weekly highlights, which became a reasonable hit even though, as dinosaurs roamed the Earth, you would have to wait a week to learn your team’s outcome.

“That’s an absolute marker of how our world has changed,” said Halling, who saw highlights of a Pittsburgh-Dallas game from 1982 and decided that whoever had won would become his team.

Pittsburgh had won -- some 10 weeks before airing, a strike having deleted seven weeks from that season.

From there came the mid-1980s apex, which lured fans such as Carla Ball of Uxbridge, on the west edge of London. “I didn’t really understand what I was watching,” she said, “but it looked like a very physical game of chess. There were so many tactics. I suppose it was part of the fascination that I thought I really would like to understand this better.”

She fancied the Dolphins because she liked dolphins and teal, and she eventually learned the rules from that sagest of creatures, a Miami bartender, then learned more from watching one of England’s scattered teams, the West London Aces. She caught her first live NFL game in 1988 or 1989, one of those Jets-Dolphins pinball-machine score-fests. Some Floridian Dolphins fans adopted her one day at the Miami airport, and she began jetting to Miami in autumns.

In 2004, she met Bob Ball, a Liverpool soccer fan who’d leaned mildly the Bears in the 1980s but converted to the Dolphins out of love and marriage. By now, they’re the membership secretary (Carla) and communications director (Bob) in the Dolphins’ UK fan club, and their party plans for this weekend go undiminished by Miami’s 0-7 start. Above the head table at their wedding last April 27, Liverpool and Dolphins scarves intertwined.


They travel annually to Miami and know a lot of Dolphins people. They revel in having met tailback Ronnie Brown on a weekday when a stadium-worker friend took them to the locker room “where he was doing some kind of advert,” Bob said.

They’re attached enough that their melancholy will accompany Zach Thomas’ eventual retirement. When some Dolphins visited Wembley in June, they helped give their club’s 2006 MVP award to Taylor, and they chatted with new coach Cam Cameron.

“He’s a big lad,” Bob Ball said.

Even while the Bears and Patriots, to name two, list UK clubs, the Balls know of only one other club with an organized website, that of Tampa Bay, where fan Geoff Haines writes that the appeal includes “all the hoopla of the game, as the Americans do showbiz and hoopla very well.”

That’s showbiz and hoopla and the very idea of 26-foot animatronic statues in foreign countries. As Carla Ball exulted, “My team’s coming to London!”