x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Goodell's aim is to sell the game

Not everybody got the fascination but at least 84,254 people did and that is a start.

Not everybody got the fascination but at least 84,254 people did and that is a start. The idea of bringing NFL to London's Wembley Stadium, which is hallowed ground for English football fans, was about one thing. It was about selling. Selling the game to a fundamentally untapped audience outside the US in the hope of selling what really counts these days, which is NFL merchandise.

Several days before the New England Patriots (5-2) slapped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7) down, 35-7, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat with a group of American sportswriters and said that a year ago there had been lines so long at the league's merchandising tents outside Wembley that fans had to wait more than an hour to buy items. It was said with a strong sense of pride and wonder at what that might mean.

Nothing that happened on Sunday would cause Goodell to retreat from a plan to add a second game as early as next year because the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the crowd did not go unnoticed even by a player who has won three Super Bowls. "The flashbulbs were going out there before kick-off and everybody seemed excited,'' the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "That went on for about 10 minutes, which you don't see in the States too often. They seemed excited and we were excited for the fans here. I think it's a privilege for the players to come over here and get to enjoy this type of experience.''

Yet even at that there were plenty of Brits who were far from converts. As one security official said after it was over, "Too many stops and starts.'' If anyone should have known what the NFL was about it was a guy named Gaheem, who punches out betting slips at a William Hill shop on Edgeware Road in a part of the city with an international flare. The streets there are filled with Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Turkish, Thai and Italian restaurants, multiple languages are spoken in every cafe and a cosmopolitan air exists. Yet when Gaheem was asked for predictions on Sunday's football game, he said: "European football?''

When told it was for the American brand at Wembley Gaheem said: "Why do you call it football? You hardly use your foot. I don't understand the game, really. I like basketball. Easier to follow.'' Maybe that is why basketball is bigger internationally, but the NFL has become more than a cult gathering, selling out the game in a half an hour. "It's the Brits who are coming,'' said Goodell. "There are [only] maybe 5,000 expats or people coming over from the US to see the game. There is now significant interest here.''

The differences between the early days of the NFL's international growth and where it is going in the UK are obvious in many ways. One is simple yet telling. When they used to go to commercials during games on British TV the switchboard of the NFL office in London would be swamped with calls. Because soccer is non-stop, the uninitiated feared they were missing the action. "Now they understand,'' Goodell said. "Just because you can't be No. 1 [in a country] doesn't mean you can't increase your audience.

"Just because our game is not played as broadly as soccer or basketball (internationally) doesn't mean this isn't worthwhile. It is the potential for growth that excites us.'' What excited the Bucs' quarterback Josh Johnson was the support. "The crowd was energetic and stayed with it the whole time,'' he said. "It is good as players when you feel that appreciation from people that do not get to experience our game every Sunday.''

Especially if they are wearing NFL merchandise at the time. @Email:rborges@thenational.ae