What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, having just returned from the first NFL regular season game to be played in the UK, I wrote: As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw.
Yesterday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, however, couldn’t have been more different. As games went, it was a roaring success, the NFL’s equivalent of a 4-3 goal-fest.
It wasn’t just the scoreline – 37-32 to the Saints, incidentally – that was in stark contrast to last year. It helped that we didn’t have last year’s torrential downpour, which hampered both teams and destroyed the Wembley turf – although the pitch still looked greasy and heavy underfoot, it was no worse than you might expect to see in, say, Green Bay at this time of year. And the NFL also made a wise choice in selecting two teams with explosive offenses, not something which could be said about either the New York Giants or Miami Dolphins last year.
It was also clear that other important lessons had been learned from last year’s experience. Instead of flying in a couple of days before the game, both teams arrived early in the week, allowing greater scope for both acclimatisation and PR opportunities. (Although what the four Saints’ cheerleaders who appeared on Saturday’s Soccer AM made of one of the quirkier sports shows around is anyone’s guess.) And whereas the crowd last year was largely a mix of interested neutrals, this year there was much more effort to create the feel of a Saints’ home game, with a pre-game tailgate party serving Cajun food and free Saints flags distributed to all seats. As a result, the noise level generated in key third down and goalline situations was considerable; not at Louisiana Superdome levels, but sufficient to discomfit the San Diego offense enough to be a contributing factor to a number of San Diego’s fourteen penalties.
What else? It was nice to have an honorary team captain (Rebecca Adlington, wearing her two gold medals) for the coin toss who was applauded rather than booed (John Terry last year), even if the role involves little else than strolling onto the field in a Saints shirt, waving to the crowd and then sauntering off again. And we clearly had a better class of anthem-singer this year too – Ne-Yo and Joss Stone, rather than Paul Potts, winner of Britain’s Got Talent. (Whatever happened to him? And does anyone care?)
And, of course, the game itself was a considerable improvement on last year, as it was always likely to be between two evenly-matched sides with extremely strong offenses (New Orleans lead the league in total offense, San Diego are second in points scored) and iffy defenses (both rank in the bottom ten in total defense). By halftime, the Saints had as many points (23) as the Giants and Dolphins amassed between them in the whole game last year. Both teams topped 400 yards in offense, both quarterbacks – Drew Brees for the Saints, Philip Rivers for the Chargers – threw for three touchdowns and exceeded 300 yards passing, and we had our fair share of spectacular plays.
For the purist, it was a bit too much like basketball at times, with both teams marching up and down the field and seemingly scoring at will – combining for five touchdowns in the second quarter alone – and offering little in the way of defensive spectacle (no sacks, one turnover, only a handful of big hits) but that’s just nit-picking. The NFL would have been hoping for a close, action-packed game to win over the neutrals, and they certainly achieved that.
Did we see – as we did with the Giants last year – a potential Super Bowl champion yesterday? I doubt it. At this, the mid-point of the season, neither team flies home above .500 – the Saints are 4-4, the Chargers 3-5 – but more than that, while both will always score freely, neither appears to have enough defensive steel. As the old NFL truism goes: offense wins games, defense wins championships.
Mind you, I doubt anyone leaving Wembley last year would have bet on the Giants (6-2 at the time) achieving anything more than perhaps an early playoff exit, so poor was their performance that day, especially on offense. (They did, however, have the defense which managed to shut down the all-conquering New England offense in the Super Bowl. Like I said: defense wins championships.) So we shall see, but I’m not hurrying out to Ladbrokes to back either the Saints or the Chargers any time soon.
One final note. Since that initial Giants/Dolphins game last year, we have seen Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore vilified for his proposed ‘39th game’ international expansion. The NFL (and also the NBA) has managed to make this a reality with a plan which requires one team (New Orleans this year, Miami last) to give up one-eighth of its home fixtures and, despite the cost – estimated at £5m - and logistical complexity of staging the game, will generate significant revenues for all 32 teams, not just the two involved. This year’s game was broadcast live by both Sky Sports and the BBC; in the case of the latter, this is the first time it has provided full coverage of a non-Super Bowl NFL game. And both Sky’s TV ratings and participation in the sport in the UK are up significantly since last year, demonstrating the positive effect that even a one-off international game can have.
Where the Premier League has been castigated for its single-minded focus on revenue generation and has (for the moment) failed in expanding the football experience to a global audience, the NFL, with its ‘one-for-all, all-for one’ collective commercial mentality – equal sharing of commercial revenues, a salary cap, and an annual ‘draft’ which gives the worst teams first choice of the best young players - is gradually creating a successful bridgehead in key international markets.
Yes, I know big sports are big businesses these days, and no amount of dewy-eyed, rose-tinted wistfulness is going to change that. But here’s a controversial thought: maybe money – or at least the pursuit of it – isn’t everything, or even the most important thing, in sport. Maybe sport is the most important thing in sport. Get that right first and the money will surely follow.
Just a thought.
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