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Gary Shelton: The NFL playing any game in England is a bad idea

LONDON

Wonderful country, England.

Terrific sport, NFL football.

Awful idea, bringing the two of them together.

Here at the Bangers-and-Mash Bowl, the Thames Bay Buccaneers are preparing to play. At the moment, that means breaking down a wall to make the ballroom of the Hilton even larger. Outside is a gray Saturday morning and a country filled with people who seem to have barely noticed that a game is going on.

If you were to stand at the window and look out at the light rain, a simple thought would probably occur to you.

Why?

Ah, the poor Bucs. They are winless, and now, with a game that would have been played at Raymond James Stadium being moved to England, they are homeless. They not only have to take on the powerful Patriots today, they have to do it in a foreign land, in a stadium they have never seen, in a week where one practice was canceled and another was held in a hotel ballroom. In the end, it is like two good ideas forming a bad one, like stuffing tuna fish and ice cream in a blender.

Once again, why?

Oh, you know the answer. It's money. With the NFL owners, as well as the owners of McDonald's and Coca-Cola, it's always about money. It's about expanding the market. It's about finding new customers. It's about the lovely sound the cash register makes.

In other words, this game isn't about sports. It's about business. It isn't for the players. It's for the owners. It isn't about today. It's about tomorrow.

Doesn't all that suggest this is a bad idea?

Play a game here and maybe a few new fans will watch, and maybe they'll buy jerseys, and maybe a TV executive will suggest a fat rights fee. After all, owning an NFL team isn't just about dollars anymore. It's about pounds and Euros and yen — whatever color the money happens to be.

On the pay grade of the NFL's most faithful fans, however, does it make sense to use a regular-season game as seed for a bigger international market? Does the average Bucs fan in, say, Brooksville give a hoot that fans in Guildford can see a game? And does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell care about that?

Suppose the Bucs had it rolling. Suppose (and this is a big supposition) they were 5-1 and looking to be in the playoff hunt. Would you feel differently then? Would you find a game in Wembley quite as much of a curiosity? No, you wouldn't. And that's the tragedy here. It's as if the NFL has already banked the money of its fans in the United States and now it's looking for a new ATM.

"We're trying to make our game global," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "We want to be like soccer. We want to have that global acknowledgement. It's like a long West Coast trip. When you go to Seattle, there isn't much difference in coming to London."

Well, except for this: Seattle has a team.

Of course, Goodell keeps raising the possibility that London could have one, too, every time he has conversations with the British media, which finally makes you understand the British expression "poppycock."

What? Would all eight visiting teams get a bye week after traveling overseas to play the London Bridges? And would the Bridges get a bye week the eight times they traveled to the United States to play a road game? It makes no sense.

Chris Parsons, the vice president of NFL International, will tell you the NFL has 100 million fans around the planet and that this game is merely part of the outreach program.

"You come to a point where you have to feed the hunger a little," he said. "It serves to do what we want to do. We have an opportunity to provide something to hard-core fans. Let them see the game the way they've never seen before. We are also doing this not as a one-off, but as a series. We're looking to play more games in the UK."

Parsons says that of the 40 million sports fans in England, 7 million of them follow the NFL. If you travel the country, however, it seems incredibly optimistic to suggest that about one in six sports fans are NFL fans. You don't hear people talking about this game. There hasn't been much mention in the newspapers. Travel past a kiosk of sports jerseys for sale and you see most soccer teams represented. You don't see NFL jerseys.

Paul Stewart, president of the Bucs UK fan club, loves the NFL, and he loves the NFL being here. Still, he has doubts about the growth of the game in England.

"I think it's now at the level it's going to stay," Stewart said. "A half-million people will like American football and watch it. It's not going to convert the die-hard soccer fans to follow the NFL.

"There will never, ever be an NFL team in London. It's a nice story, but it isn't going to happen."

Instead, they get to see Bucs-Patriots. It's a little like imagining Wimbledon being played in Boston, or the Manchester United-Arsenal game being played in Las Vegas, or the England-New Zealand rugby match being played in Chicago. It would be interesting. It would sell tickets.

In the end, however, it would be out of place.

This game is, too.

Gary Shelton: The NFL playing any game in England is a bad idea 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 9:58pm]
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