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Saturday, October 24, 2009
Updated: October 25, 4:43 PM ET
Not all games for UK football fans

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

SURREY, England -- Finding a football game is much more difficult than finding a futbol game in this beautiful area, but at tree-lined Richmond Park in the southwest corner of London, one visitor found what he came looking for.

Animals grazed in the distance, riders on horses navigated nearby trails, and four neatly trimmed rugby pitches were adjacent to the wide swath of grass with no goalposts that served as the home field.

It was modest, for sure, and a reflection of the place American football has in this culture.

"It's a little bit of a niche sport, the minority type of sport," says 29-year-old James Cuff.

In the States, Sundays and football have paired to become a way of life for some in the fall. It is a much different story here. And despite impressive ticket demand in each of the past three regular-season NFL games at Wembley Stadium -- including Sunday's clash between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- some locals are cautioning decision-makers against reading too deeply into that demand.

They think the idea of permanently locating a team in London, which Patriots owner Robert Kraft suggested would be the best thing to do sometime over the next decade, might be too much too fast.

"To be honest, as great as it is now to see the Patriots in London, I'm still against it. It's an American thing and that's part of the romanticism of it for me," says Cuff, who is from Cardiff, Wales. "I think the interest would be there for probably a year or two, but I don't think there would be enough to keep it successful over the course of time."

On Saturday morning, Cuff came to Surrey -- where Henry VIII had many royal palaces -- to join other members of the UK Patriots fan club in a flag football game against the Buccaneers' UK fan club.

Players wore replica jerseys, the most popular being Tom Brady's No. 12 and Wes Welker's No. 83. Former Buccaneers running back Mike Alstott stopped by during pregame warm-ups, while the Patriots sent former kicker John Smith, who was born and raised in England, as an honorary coach.

In speaking with locals here, one of the main complaints about American football is lack of flow.

"People over here say there are too many out breaks -- two seconds on, two seconds off," Cuff says. "For me, I look at that as sort of the chess aspect of the game."

Another aspect that seems to be a head-scratcher for some is the complexity of the sport. If soccer and rugby are about as simple as it gets, football is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

"I think the people who follow it are deeply passionate and knowledgeable about it, but then there are people who say, 'I don't get it, there are more than 1 or 2 rules,'" says Alex Hewitt, 38, a native of Dundee, Scotland, who now lives in London.

"To me, that's the interesting part of it because there are real technicalities. In every game I watch, I learn something new. You can have a play that's reviewed, you analyze it, and then it can be changed. Wow. It seems like some of the referees are learning as they go as well."

Credit the Brits with a sense of humor that NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira might not appreciate, but which reflects one of the league's great challenges in growing its sport here: For people to appreciate it, they have to understand it.

Smith, who kicked for the Patriots from 1974 to 1983 and now operates an indoor sports facility in Milford, Mass., speaks from a unique perspective on the topic because of his roots.

"I came from England being crazy about soccer, but I enjoy football just as much. It took me a while, but now I'm a fanatic," he says. "In London, people are all over, so the way to develop it would be to get it into schools with flag football where kids could say, 'Hey, this is an easy game.'"

Smith saw potential for football in the UK as far back as the early 1980s, when he was part of an upbeat, music-based British television show that recapped NFL games and interviewed players. That highly rated show lasted a few years, but soon enough, any momentum football had generated in the UK seemed stunted.

Cuff, whose father piqued his interest in the game at a young age, remembers a blackout period in the '90s in terms of media coverage.

"My interest waned, probably because it was not in your face like British football, which was always on the [television] and in the papers," he says.

Cuff believes the turnaround came with the advent of the Internet, which made it easier for international fans to follow the game. That's also right around the time the Patriots began their dynastic run, which started with an upset victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and might explain why the Patriots were voted in one poll as the NFL's most popular franchise in London.

Hewitt said that's when he became hooked, drawn in by the Patriots forgoing individual pregame introductions and coming onto the field as a team.

Mark Ward, who heads up the UK fan club, goes back a bit further than that. He was a Patriots fan for some of the franchise's darkest times in the early 1990s, and regardless of what the NFL decides about placing a permanent franchise in London, he says his allegiances won't change.

The 45-year-old Ward is passionate not only about football, but also the Patriots. In a place where futbol rules, he represents the niche the NFL believes can grow in time.

"In some respects, you have to be a more dedicated fan being here because of the time difference," Ward says. "All the prime-time games are 8 p.m. in the States, which is 1 a.m. here. There are a lot of us who get up, watch the game, go to bed at 5 in the morning, then wake up a few hours later and go to work. So I think there is a level of enthusiasm and dedication to the game. If you're a fan, you're a real fan."