When the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots take to the hallowed turf at London's Wembley Stadium on Sunday, it would be easy to think that those in the jam-packed crowd of about 80,000 are rookies when it comes to watching football (or Gridiron as they call it in Britain, to differentiate from the football North Americans call soccer). Surely the fans who will be cheering on Tom Brady and Sam Bradford won't know their flea flickers from their Hail Mary passes or their tight ends from their free safeties, right?
Not so fast, young padawans. Believe it or not, the NFL first played a game at Wembley in 1986 — the first "American Bowl" — when the game was really just taking off on this side of the pond. And it did so again for the next seven years.
Yes, these games were pre-season. Yes, the best players usually played only a couple of series — I think Joe Montana took three snaps in the 1987 American Bowl game versus Miami. But it was live, hard-hitting NFL action on European shores, and the Brits loved it. They loved the tailgate parties. They loved the cheerleaders. And they have been following it closely ever since.
From the time I was given a blue (if you can believe that) San Francisco 49ers hand-me-down jumper (that's a sweater west of the Atlantic) as a kid in England in the mid-80s, I have been a huge NFL fan. This coincided with Britain's new kid on the TV block, Channel 4, obtaining the rights to broadcast NFL games live on Sunday nights.
We were blessed with the presence of retired kicker Mick Luckhurst, who helped a novice audience understand the basic premise of the game and explained why 60 minutes of play takes 4 hours. We were hooked! Who cared if Luckhurst couldn't read a teleprompter to save his life, regularly mucking up his lines and knocking over ill-placed studio props? We loved him anyway.
That love transferred itself to playgrounds and local fields, where soccer coaches looked on in horror as we luzzed a football around when we should have been warming up for soccer and pretended to be Joe Montana, Phil Simms or Dan Marino. The NFL had arrived in the UK for good, and global commercialization was surely to follow.
As most NFL fans in North America will probably recall with the same kind of fondness normally reserved for your naive kid brother, the NFL launched and ran different variations of a "World League" for most of the 1990s and for a few years in the new millennium. Teams from European cities — such as London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam — would take on new U.S. teams, with the London Monarchs winning the inaugural World Final in 1991.
The goal, initially, was to provide a spring league for developmental purposes and to spread the NFL brand throughout the world as much as possible. After mixed results, the world league ceased operations for good in 2007 after losing more than $30 million a year. It appears that the NFL had a different plan in mind, specifically to hold regular season NFL games outside of the Americas on an ongoing basis. Thus, the NFL's love affair with London was to continue.
The league agreed to hold a regular-season game each season for the next nine years, complete with all the fixings: tailgate parties, retired football personalities and incredibly large quantities of barbecued farm animals. It was an instant commercial success, as there nothing that a Brit loves more than watching live sport with a steak sandwich the size of a small horse in one hand and a yard of ale in the other.
Next year, there will be two games played at Wembley. Minnesota will "host" Pittsburgh in September, and then Jacksonville, which has agreed to play a home game at Wembley for the next three years, will "host" San Francisco in October. So there is plenty of NFL football for London residents to look forward to. More than 80,000 fans will watch the NFL's elite do battle on the field this weekend, and many may be wondering the ultimate question: Will the NFL ever consider holding a Super Bowl in Britain? Food, if you can stomach it, for thought...
Follow the Wembley match-up between the Patriots and the Rams here on Yahoo! Sports.
by Matt Goff
Top: The New England Patriots' Tom Brady, shown during a recent game against the New York Jets, will be playing in London October 28 (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Right: Sam Bradford during a St Louis Rams training session in London this week. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)