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Since 2005, the NFL has hosted an International Series by having a regular season game played outside of the United States. The first game in London was played in 2007 when the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10.
Since then the NFL has scheduled a game in London each season to market the game overseas. This year the NFL decided to schedule two games at Wembley Stadium with the first game being the Minnesota Vikings hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Each year I make a point to travel to one Vikings road game not only to cover the team but to visit the city they are playing in. When it was announced last October that Minnesota was playing in London I decided this was the trip I was going to take. I was curious to see what the fan support would be like not only for the Vikings in Europe but the NFL in general.
I departed out of Philadelphia on Thursday night, and it looked like 80 percent of the flight was occupied by Pittsburgh Steelers fans. I’m pretty sure I was the only person from Minnesota on that flight. I walked around Piccadilly Circus on Friday evening hoping to get a sense of what the buzz was like from the British with the NFL being in town. Despite having banners all along Regent Street promoting the game, people went about their business like nothing special was going on.
On Saturday, I was in North London to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea in an English Premier League match. I sat next to a Hotspur fan named John and asked him about the NFL in London. He described it as “a sport that has people curious about it, but doesn’t have a very passionate following over here.”
The only Vikings fans I saw at the match were three brothers from Toronto who have been fans of the team since the 70s. They called this an opportunity of a lifetime to come see the Vikings play in London.
I thought later in the evening I would see more Vikings fans out and about in London as the NFL staged a block party along Regent Street that afternoon. I did a walking tour in East London and I saw many people wearing Steelers gear but nobody wearing Vikings gear. Later that night I walked in the Covert Garden & Leicester Square area, and it was the same thing: many Steelers fans wearing their team colors and no Vikings fans wearing theirs. Maybe it was the embarrassment of being 0-3 but to not see anyone wearing purple on Saturday was a bit of a surprise.
Sunday was a different story as with game day finally here people were starting to get excited. On the train into Wembley I talked to a couple from St. Paul, Roman and Julie Dudar. For Roman it was his third time visiting London but it was the first time for his wife. “We try to get to a few Vikings game each year.” Roman said. “When I found out they were playing in London, I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring my wife over on a trip.”
Another lad I met on the tube was Andrew, who is from London. He said he had been a Vikings fan since 1998 and became familiar with football from playing the Madden video game series. He was traveling in with three other friends, one of which being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. All four were excited to see their first ever NFL game in person.
As I arrived at Wembley I realized that this was more of an NFL event than anything else as fans were wearing jerseys from not only the Vikings and Steelers but their favorite NFL players and teams. While there was a decent following of fans from Minnesota and Pittsburgh many fans from all parts of England and Europe traveled to Wembley to watch the game.
Walking around the stands I met a fan from Spain named Alberto who is a fan of Minnesota sports teams because of Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio. Dressed in a Randy Moss, jersey he said his dream was to come to the United States to watch a Vikings game in person and was thrilled he was finally able to see his favorite team in person for the first time. He told me he also wanted to get to the Metrodome to see a game before it was torn down. I told him to save his money and come over in a couple years when the new stadium is built. He’ll appreciate it more.
As you know by now, Minnesota ended up defeating Pittsburgh 34-27. After the game I had a chance to talk to a couple of the players about what it was like playing over in London.
“I enjoyed it over here,” Vikings Defensive End Jared Allen said. “It’s tough being away from my family and the routine is a little different, but sometimes that can be a good distraction. Maybe this was the break we needed.” Chad Greenway added by saying, “I loved the idea of the flags waving in the stands. We need to add that to the Metrodome.”
No player enjoyed being in London more than Greg Jennings, who caught his first two touchdowns as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. “I like playing in London,” he said, “I think it’s impressive what the fans do and the love the city gave us.” Jennings also added that he thinks there will be a team here in London someday.
I spent all of Monday walking around London and there were still pockets of fans wearing NFL team apparel throughout the city. The Vikings fans that I did see seemed to have an extra spring in their step. I guess getting your first win of the season will do that.
I have one more day over here before I come home to Minnesota. After being here in London for a few days it seems to me that the NFL is still more of a curiosity than a passion in England. The game did draw over 84,000 people, and fans traveled not only from the United States but all across Europe as well. I still have my doubts whether an NFL franchise could succeed in London due to the travel, but after this weekend I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Super Bowl here within the next few years.