The late Pete Rozelle helped make pro football America's most popular sport – in a hurry. In 1965, just five years into his tenure as NFL Commissioner, football overtook baseball for the first time as the fans' favorite (according to Harris Interactive's annual poll). Football's popularity continued to skyrocket here in the U.S.
Toward the end of his three decades at the helm, Rozelle set his sights overseas, ushering in the era of NFL football in foreign lands. In 1982, British citizens caught their first glimpse of live NFL games when the United Kingdom's Channel 4 became the first terrestrial television station there to broadcast pro football.
Then, on August 3, 1986, the Chicago Bears defeated the Dallas Cowboys 17-6 in a preseason contest at London's original Wembley Stadium – the first time an NFL game had been played outside North America. That game also marked the first of eight straight American Bowls, as the exhibition matches were dubbed, at Wembley.
Rozelle's successor, Paul Tagliabue, took the international baton and ran enthusiastically with it. He launched the World League of American Football from 1991-92 and then re-launched an upgraded version in 1995. Before retiring in 2006, Tagliabue also continued and significantly expanded the American Bowl series, adding Japan, Canada, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Ireland and Australia to the list of host countries.
Today, current Commissioner Roger Goodell has brought American football's overseas venture full circle. With the advent of his International Series in 2007, the NFL has not only returned to Great Britain, but also become more meaningful, with regular season games replacing the preseason events.
This Sunday, the Patriots will play their first-ever regular season contest overseas (the franchise is 1-3 overall in international matches, all of which were preseason games). New England will continue the NFL's English tradition when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London's historic –albeit new and vastly improved – Wembley Stadium.
In a country as old as England, everything, it seems, is rooted in history and tradition. And when it comes to sporting events in London, Wembley is the preeminent venue. Its beginnings, however, are rather inauspicious.
London's Sports Landmark
As far back as 1880, the Wembley Park Leisure Grounds, in the northwest outskirts of the city, hosted soccer and cricket matches. The recreation area, decorated with fountains, waterfalls and flowerbeds, also featured walkways and a running track. At the end of the decade, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, Sir Edward Watkin, proposed building a main attraction at the site and linking it to central London via railway line.
Watkin's project called for an enormous, four-legged, 1,150 ft. tower as the centerpiece of the Leisure Grounds. Almost as quickly as construction began, it ended. The tower had only reached 200 feet when design flaws were discovered. Funding soon was stanched. The abandoned structure would bear its creator's name, though, becoming known derisively as Watkin's Folly. In 1907, demolition crews put it out of its misery.
In the years immediately following, the site continued to function as a recreation and tourist destination. An 18-hole golf course even sprouted up there. By the end of World War I a decade later, the British government decided to build a National Sports Ground as a central piece of its planned British Empire Exhibition. Wembley was chosen as the ideal location, with 219 acres selected for the Exhibition.
To a certain extent, Watkin was redeemed. The ground on which Watkin's Folly had stood was deemed perfect for the construction of the new stadium. Originally called The Empire Stadium, the mostly concrete and steel venue took less than a year to build. In 1923, it hosted its first event, a soccer championship that became known as "The White Horse Cup Final." More than double the capacity of spectators flooded into the arena to see the game, and mounted police, including one on a white horse, were called to quell the chaos.
Throughout the century, periodic improvements were made to the stadium, including flood lights, an electric scoreboard and a glass/aluminum roof encircling roof for the comfort of spectators. Wembley Stadium, as it became known, continued to play host to soccer and rugby, and later added American football, musical concerts and other sports and entertainment events to its schedule.
Eventually, despite the many efforts to upgrade, the old Wembley couldn't meet the growing demands of hosting large-scale, modern-day events. In 2000, the stadium closed. Three years later, it was completely demolished and the ground beneath it leveled to begin the process of rebuilding. Reconstruction was well underway by 2004 and in the spring of 2007, the new Wembley Stadium opened its gates. Its towering arch is the new structure's signature design feature. And with a nod to its ancestor, the footbridge that leads from the Wembley railway station to the stadium is called The White Horse Bridge.
The new Wembley has proven capable of accommodating every event its predecessor could, with the addition of new ones, including motor racing. In 2012, Wembley will play a central role as London hosts the Summer Olympic Games.
Old Meets New
When New England visits jolly old England this Sunday, it will be a cause for much celebrating on the other side of the pond. The Patriots' enormous success this decade has coincided with the ever-growing popularity of American football internationally. In the U.K. alone, numerous fan-based websites and fan clubs have sprouted up in recent years, supported by a fan base equally as passionate about the game as anyone in the U.S.
In the days leading up to the Patriots-Buccaneers game, the NFL and its U.K. partners have planned a full slate of social events and promotional activities, including flag football games for adults and a high school football game between a Connecticut prep school and one from Bristol, a city two hours west of London. The U.K. Patriots Fan Club, among others, will also host like-minded followers in London throughout the weekend.
This experience will be a new one for many of the Patriots players and coaches. As a result, head coach Bill Belichick plans to cover all the bases beforehand, so that his players and coaching staff are fully prepared.
"We'll take into consideration all the things that are a little bit different, whether it be the venue, the field, the preparation, the time, all that stuff, absolutely," he said recently. "That's all part of the planning and schedule leading up to the game and those are important elements to play the game."
Players like quarterback Tom Brady, who's traveled to London for pleasure in the past, realize this is a business trip and they won't have much time to be tourists.
"No, I think our coach will have us … in the most remote area, there won't be anything within miles. We probably won't do a whole lot of that, not on this trip."
However, the Pats expect to savor London. Belichick has visited there on previous occasions as well, calling it a "great" city in which he and his team are looking forward to playing.
"Yeah we are," Belichick declared. "It's a great opportunity for all of us to play in a new venue. When that game was scheduled in the spring, it was very unique, obviously, so there's anticipation there. That's a little extra special game on your schedule that you know you don't normally have. You have all your division games, all your other games and when you're playing in London, put a little asterisk by that one; that one's a little bit different than the rest of them. When that comes that will be an interesting experience for us."
"Yeah, I think it will be a great experience for us," echoed Brady. "The team's really looking forward to it. It's coming fast … It will be fun when we head over there."