Sunday, October 28, 2007
London experiment was learning experience for all involved
By Mark Woods Special to ESPN.com
WEMBLEY, England -- American Football 101, London style.
Let's start with an easy one. Points for a touchdown? Sarah Stockton, who had made the long jaunt to London from the far northern outpost of Aberdeen, hesitated, blushed, then looked forlornly for help from her crew.
"I don't remember," she sighed. "Is it three?" Nope. "OK, seven?" Close, but no cigar.
In fairness, the New York Giants' 13-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins was the first NFL game this Brit had ever attended. Same for the vast majority of the 81,176 fans who journeyed here Sunday to witness what league officials expect to be the first of a regular stream of regular-season games overseas.
It was part-experiment, part-educational experience. And to relief of officials here, the only fumbles came on the field. An error-filled contest was not the finest ad the sport could have wished for, but with commissioner Roger Goodell watching, the first stage of his plan to export the game from the United States was executed with minimal fuss.
Outside, the London ticket touts were doing a brisk business. Even though most attention in soccer-mad Britain was on the Premiership clash between Liverpool and Arsenal, demand far outstripped supply. "250 pounds a pair, good seats," was the quoted rate down Wembley Way, roughly $500. Although the NFL might frown on such unofficial activity, it was an early indication that this is a concept that may have legs.
Dolphins jerseys on view -- most with "Marino" on their backs -- clearly edged those of the Giants. The Fish, it would appear, are more popular overseas than at home, at least right now. But there were football fans of all hues in attendance. Never seen the colors of the Southampton Stags or Helsten Diesels before? Here was your chance.
A look at the Giants-Dolphins game in London, from the stands to the action on the field. Photos
With no defined "home" support, it was hardly surprising that there was an occasional lack of intensity in the bleachers. However, there was a sizable din when Plaxico Burress let an Eli Manning bomb slip through his fingers early on. Ditto when the Giants tried their luck on fourth and inches in the second quarter.
Still, some traditional parts of the UK's sporting experience filtered into the Americana. The Mexican Wave. A complete willingness to stand in line without a hint of indignation. And, of course, the appearance of a streaker, whose dash across the field just before the start of the second half made the infamous models who grace Page 3 of the country's top-selling newspaper seem modest by comparison. Cue a mass loss of appetite among the assembled.
Lest we should have forgotten where we were, Miami was led onto the field by a mascot waving a huge Union Jack flag. A gratuitous attempt to win over the neutrals. And why not? It was, officially, a Dolphins home game. Even if the drizzle and the 55-degree chill bore closer resemblance to the Meadowlands than South Beach. Anyone hoping the tourists from South Florida would bring their weather with them was sorely disappointed.
David Garcia and Carolina, his spouse of 15 days, had no complaints. The Dolphins season-ticket holders savored a pregame tailgate party in which pints of beer were deemed an adequate substitute for barbeque and burgers.
Why come all this way though? "We decided to plan our honeymoon around the game," the groom declared. Who said romance was dead? "We wanted to be a part of it. Lucky for me I've got a wife who's a big football fan."
Just as well. There's no such thing as a quickie divorce in England.
Some moments mighty live on in the memories of those who came, saw and were conquered. Two Scotland flags were proudly waved when Lawrence Tynes, who was born in Greenock, Scotland, kicked the first of his two field goals for New York.
"It was a great atmosphere, better than I expected," Tynes said. "It just was shame about the conditions, that the people coming for the first time couldn't see a better game."
At least there was unintended light relief for those who didn't buy into the program. Cleo Lemon's duff pass at the end of the second quarter was so comedic, it might be immortalized in one of London's traditional theatric pantomimes. Much of the remaining fare was pretty dismal. Fish and chips may be the favored national dish. But this particularly Fish wasn't too appetizing.
Ultimately, was it enough of a positive experience to make this a regular gig in London Town? Initial indications from league executives here suggest that much is certain. And who knows? By the next time, six points for a TD might more easily trip off the tongue. All part of the lesson plan for road trips to come.
Mark Woods is a freelance football writer based in the U.K.