Football in the UK: Whetting the global appetite

Football in the UK: Whetting the global appetite

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Part 2 of a series
By Neil Reynolds
Special to Profootballhof.com

The success of the 1986 American Bowl certainly struck a note with the NFL powers-that-be in New York.

And following the ground-breaking efforts of the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, the United Kingdom’s ever-growing fan base was rewarded with a series of NFL exhibition games every summer from 1987 until 1993.

The annual American Bowl contest played host to some of the biggest names in pro football history – Walter Payton, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, John Elway and Barry Sanders are just a few gridiron legends who trod the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

The action on the field may have been of the slightly less important preseason variety but that didn’t matter to the British fans. They packed the national stadium to the rafters and squeezed every ounce of enjoyment from the annual NFL visits.

While it was very much an NFL event, the American Bowls became very British days out, as former First Down editor and current nfluk.com columnist Keith Webster recalled: “There were as many jerseys of British amateur teams on display as there were San Francisco 49ers or Miami Dolphins.

“Those games – which were played in an era before the internet and mobile phones – had a real feel of the American football community in the UK coming together. And that made the American Bowl games really special.”

While they may have lacked the media storm that surrounded the Bears-Cowboys clash in the summer of 1986, the 1987 and 1988 American Bowls proved to be absolute thrillers, with late touchdowns providing wins for the Los Angeles Rams and Dolphins respectively.

Rams star running back Eric Dickerson scored on a 4-yard run that included a pretty mean stiff-arm in the first half of the 1987 contest but it was the Broncos – behind the passing of Gary Kubiak and the receiving of rookie sensation Ricky Nattiel – who moved into a late lead. But backup rusher Charles White plunged into the end zone from one yard out with 26 seconds remaining and barefoot kicker Mike Lansford added the all-important conversion for a 28-27 win.

White not only proved to be the star of the 1987 American Bowl, he ended up being one of the Rams’ key performers for the entire season. Dickerson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts later that year and White went on to rush for 1,374 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite never rushing for more than 342 yards in any of the other seven seasons that made up his career.

Playing in front of more than 73,000 fans on another rainy night at Wembley Stadium was Elway, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, who said: “The fans really enjoyed that game. I certainly had a great time in London.”

The notable thing about the NFL crowd that August evening in 1987 was that it dwarfed the figure of 61,000 fans who were in the same seats the day before to see a British all-star soccer team take on a rest of the world side that featured the great Diego Maradona of Argentina.

In a land where soccer was – and still is – king, having an NFL preseason game draw considerably more fans than a prominent soccer match featuring the biggest global star in the sport was quite impressive. Actually, make that very, very impressive indeed!

In 1988, two of the game’s greats went head to head – for a series or two – as the Marino-led Dolphins took on Montana’s 49ers. Miami opened up a 10-point lead but trailed 21-20 late in the contest.

Enter backup quarterback and game-winning hero David Archer. He faked a handoff to the right, bootlegged to his left and scored the game’s winning touchdown on a 4-yard run with 1:28 remaining, sending more than 70,000 British fans into frenzied celebrations.

Montana may have been on the losing side in 1988, but the British public made a real impression on him, as he admitted: “The fans were wonderful. They loved the game and it was good to get out in front of a full crowd.

“They were very passionate, they loved their sports and you could feel that when you got into the game. Even in the week leading up to the game there were a lot of people around at practice and fans knew who we were as we walked around the city. There was a lot of excitement about NFL teams being in London.”

While the British fans were happy to see NFL players in the flesh, they were not always treated to the best of games, especially as the American Bowl was often among the first contests of each preseason.

In fact, in the final five American Bowl exhibition games played in London, not one team managed to score more than 17 points. Here is the full list of results of American Bowl games played in London:

With five regular season games already in the record books and the possibility of a London NFL franchise regularly featured on the news agenda, the United Kingdom remains one of professional football’s key international markets. NFL games across the pond date back to 1983 and some of the greatest names in the sport’s history have graced the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

“Football in the UK” is a series of articles for Profootballhof.com looking at the growth of professional football in the UK, British NFL journalist and Sky Sports television presenter Neil Reynolds examines the league’s history overseas, recalls some of the great games played in England’s capital city and assesses the chances of a British NFL franchise in the future. The series will run each Wednesday on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website through Week 8 when the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams play in London.

In his second article, Reynolds examines the American Bowl preseason series that ran from 1986 until 1993, further bolstering British support for the NFL and paving the way for pro football to be taken to more international sites.

Part 1 – 1986 American Bowl
1986 – Chicago Bears, 17, Dallas Cowboys 6
1987 – L.A. Rams 28, Denver Broncos 27
1988Miami Dolphins 27, San Francisco 49ers 21
1989 – Philadelphia Eagles 17, Cleveland Browns13
1990 – New Orleans Saints 17, L.A. Raiders 10
1991 – Buffalo Bills 17, Philadelphia Eagles 13
1992San Francisco 49ers 17, Washington Redskins 15
1993 – Dallas Cowboys 13, Detroit Lions 13 (OT)

The Raiders could only muster 10 points behind the passing of Jay Schroeder in 1990 but their strong-armed signal-caller still has fond memories of his overseas trip.

“The whole experience was great,” Schroeder stressed. “There was a lot for me to see and do because it was my first time in London. And the fans were great. This was one of the first few games over there and they cheered the entire game.

“I don’t have too many memories of the game itself. I was coming off knee surgery and I think I only played in one or two series.”

Eventually, such fleeting appearances from starters would become a problem. As British fans became more and more knowledgeable, they began to see that early exhibition games were not the real deal.

By 1993, the American Bowl series had run its course in London as the Cowboys and Lions played out an uninspiring tie in front of a much-lower crowd of around 45,000.

The novelty had well and truly worn off. Fans in the United Kingdom had grown frustrated at seeing the star players for only a series or two – they had grown too sophisticated for their own good. Meaningless preseason games were now being viewed as exactly that – meaningless.

But they did serve a purpose and showed there was a real hunger for the real thing in the UK.

That would come in the form of NFL Europe in 1995 but the NFL was not to return to British shores in live game format until 2007, when the Dolphins took on the New York Giants in the first regular season game outside of North America.

Of course, back in the late 1980s, not even the most ambitious British NFL fan could have imagined regular season games becoming a permanent fixture in later years.

“At the time, I didn’t really think those American Bowls would lead to regular season games in the U.K.,” Schroeder admitted. “But the NFL has done a great job in global marketing. It’s exciting to see games played regularly in London now. I am amazed at the international growth of the NFL.”

Elway added, “There is a big difference between the regular season and preseason in terms of intensity. I think the fans really enjoy those regular season games at Wembley Stadium now.”

As a footnote, the American Bowl games in London did not purely impact on the United Kingdom – the success of the British contests saw the NFL expand the series to take in preseason games in a host of cities across Europe, Canada, Mexico, Japan and even Australia.

The NFL was truly becoming a global power as fans from Barcelona to Berlin, Stockholm to Sydney began to experience the phenomenon that grips Americans each and every Sunday.

And it all started on some very rainy but very entertaining nights in London at the old and somewhat crumbling Wembley Stadium.
Neil Reynolds has covered the NFL as a journalist and broadcaster since 1991. He is currently serving as co-presenter of NFL coverage in the United Kingdom on Sky Sports and also has experience presenting BBC Radio’s NFL coverage in 2009 and 2010. The author of “Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players,” Reynolds has worked for British football magazines First Down and Gridiron and has also written for American publications and websites such as NFL.com, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Pittsburgh Post-Press Gazette. He currently writes for nfluk.com, SkySports.com and Sky.com and has interviewed some of the biggest names in football, including Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Ray Lewis and Tom Brady.

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