The Vikings? Never Heard of Them
This week, the NFL heads to London where the 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers face your (and I use the term “your” loosely here) 0-3 Minnesota Vikings. What does this have to do with soccer? Just walk with me.
Hearing about this game on the radio this morning on my way into work, I was reminded of the couple times I contemplated trying to see a similar kind of exhibition matchup in soccer, with A.C. Milan facing off against Fenerbahçe S.K. or Manchester United against Newcastle. Apparently, the NFL games in London do very well, drawing in the neighborhood of 80,000 people to Wembley Stadium. Back in the early 2000s, I was shocked to discover that games that didn’t even count—the London NFL games are part of the actual season—between European soccer clubs were drawing similar numbers to stadiums around New York City.
I can remember casually thinking that the tickets couldn’t be that much, that they would be readily available. Boy, was I wrong about that. When I checked all the cheap tickets were sold out and the ones remaining were way too expensive. What I saw in soccer at the time was an underdog sport trying to work its way into the American mainstream and still struggling. It wasn’t a matter of selling out a game here and there. Clearly, there were enough soccer fans—maybe people who grew up playing it, who followed the international game, or who came from other countries where it was more popular—to pack the Meadowlands. But at the time soccer culture was outside of the mainstream. You just didn’t see it unless you went looking.
Apparently, it’s much the same way in London with football. Yes, the game this weekend will be well-attended, but the Wall Street Journal’s London bureau chief (and former Pioneer Press-er) Bruce Orwell told Kathy Wurzer this morning that there was no mention of it in the London papers and little chance that anyone would be wearing purple or black and yellow out to the pub this weekend. The NFL is trying to gain a toehold on the consciousness of the British public with these games in the same way that soccer did in the United States.
The thing is, it seems like it’s worked with soccer. When I first got into following soccer at the pro level around 2002, it was hard to find kits. You had to work. In my case, this meant going into New York City and maybe lucking into a Newcastle jersey at the Foot Locker near Broadway and Houston. I had to hunt down and order my Lazio Veron jersey, and I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t lightly used when it arrived. In their own way, these jerseys were like band T-shirts for ultra-cool, you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-them bands.
I’m not saying it’s all the way there, but things have changed in the last ten years. It seems like people in general have a better sense of teams like Barcelona and that every time the World Cup comes along, it gets a little more attention, even when the U.S. doesn’t do particularly well.
I guess maybe it’s just funny to imagine a sport as monstrously popular as football is in the United States being someone’s hip cachet in another country. Picture a young, hip Londoner strolling into his local pub in a Vikings jersey and all his mates asking what’s up with it.
“This? Oh, it’s a football jersey. No, the other football. Yeah. The Vikings—you’ve probably never heard of them.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
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