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Many Londoners just don't see the draw in Steelers-Vikings game

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:09 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
NFL banners hang Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, on Regent Street in London.

LONDON — If one of the busiest streets in one of the world's busiest cities is any sign, it's almost as if NFL stands for Not For London.

Huge banners promoting the Steelers-Minnesota Vikings game Sunday stretch for blocks along fashionable Regent Street, where trendy clothing stores with red neon signs and splashy display windows compete for the seemingly endless number of shoppers.

One storefront depicts a replica of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gearing up for the NFL's latest international game in his No. 7 jersey.

But as hundreds strolled by Thursday, not one person could be seen glancing up at the banners or taking in the Roethlisberger display — one that, curiously, uses a black mannequin to depict Roethlisberger.

“To be honest, I think only small sections (of the population) care anything about the game,” London resident Dave Johnson said. “There's a few who might like American football. But I love (British) football. That's my world.”

It's a tough sports culture for the NFL to infiltrate.

America's most popular sports league continues to mull becoming the first North American league to establish a European base. Two NFL games will be played in London this season — the Jacksonville Jaguars play the San Francisco 49ers next month.

The Jaguars will play here the next three years, too, an experiment to determine how Londoners react to watching the same team every season.

Despite big crowds that the London-based games draw — the Steelers' game is expected to attract about 86,000 to Wembley Stadium — residents warned that the NFL never will be anything but a niche sport here. And perhaps a small niche at that.

They have football, thank you, and they don't really want or need more.

“I don't think it could be a year-around thing,” said Johnson, 26, a builder of luxury boats and furniture. “I don't think they'd be filling stadiums week in and week out.

“The NFL doesn't get the coverage over here. We've got analysis on football (soccer), cricket, rugby — a great deal of coverage — and we don't have that (on the NFL).”

Johnson didn't know there was a game on Sunday until he noticed a sign while picking up a suit on Seville Row.

Another familiar part of American sports culture is missing in London. Many bar owners ban fans who wear sports team jerseys or ballcaps to watch game telecasts.

“A lot of bars won't let you in wearing sports colors because of problems with the soccer hooliganism in the 1970s and '80s,” said Mark Laffan, 36, a self-described New York Jets fan who works for an executive search firm.

“If you're going out in town, nobody wears sports colors. A lot of places will just turn you away. People have gotten out of the habit of wearing them.”

Imagine how long a sports bar in Pittsburgh would last after banning black and gold.

Roethlisberger witnessed plenty of Steelers enthusiasm this summer when making a promotional tour of London. (Yes, he posed alongside Big Ben.)

No doubt he'll see more starting Friday when the Steelers arrive after an all-night charter flight. The Vikings, as the home team, have been in London all week.

“I've heard that during games they are a little soccer crazy — the horns, the thunder sticks, just kind of making noise all the time,” he said. “They know their stuff. (But) I wouldn't say they're as knowledgeable as everyone over here, because they still have a little rugby and soccer on their mind.”

That's why Laffan believes the NFL will have a major selling job to do if it bases a team in London, as Commissioner Roger Goodell apparently hopes to do.

“A lot of people will be coming down (Sunday) for the game, and there will be a lot of people watching the game, and tickets are expensive, and it's sold out,” Laffan said. “But there isn't really a sporting event that gets London buzzing. It's just too big a city.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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