In the nation of Wimbledon, Lords and Wembley, North Americanstyle football has long been regarded as an oddity. But in 1982 Britain’s independent Channel Four, competing for viewers with the public British Broadcasting Corporation, introduced American Football, a weekly one-hour program of National Football League (NFL) highlights. In four years the program’s audience has grown from 1.3 million to almost 4 million. And last week at London’s Wembley Stadium, the hallowed grounds of what the world calls “football” and North America calls “soccer,” 82,669 rain-soaked spectators cheered an exhibition game between the NFL’S Dallas Cowboys and the Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. Said Tim Heald, a writer for The Daily Telegraph: “If you asked me, I would say that American football will never catch on over here. But I would be quite wrong. It already has.”
The evidence last week was convincing. Tickets for the game, ranging in price from $10 to $40, sold out in two weeks. By game time on Aug. 3, scalpers were getting up to $200 for prime seats. British sales of NFL-franchised products—from footballs to jigsaw puzzles— will exceed $8 million this year. The first British teams were formed in 1983, and there are now more than 100 organized into two leagues—the Budweiser League, sponsored by the giant U.S. Anheuser-Busch beer company, and the locally sponsored British-American Football League. Two monthly football
magazines, Gridiron UK and Touchdown, are thriving, and the Canadian Football League is negotiating to sell a highlights package of this year’s Grey Cup and a weekly highlights show. Said Ross Biddiscombe, editor of the 35,000circulation Gridiron UK: “There is nobody who cannot see the excitement of it, and everybody wants a piece of it.” Television exposure, and the growing disenchantment with violence at soccer matches, facilitated the football invasion. When the Bears and their 308-lb. defensive tackle William (The Refrigerator) Perry won the Super Bowl Jan. 26 in New Orleans, the British TV audience exceeded 12 million. And two hours after Perry scored against Dallas last week, 3.75 million Britons watched the TV replay. Explained Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape: “It is as though soccer is a much loved but rather drab nagging wife, while American football is the colorful, classy, wide-eyed mistress.”
While many British fans admit to an ignorance of the rules and The Daily Express ran a pregame article under the caustic headline, “Real men don’t wear shoulder pads,” last week’s game generated $4 million in ticket sales. Said Chicago running back Walter Payton: “I am convinced that a London NFL franchise would be a success.” While the affair lasts, British fans are warmly embracing their new mistress.
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