Starkey: Steelers in Ireland? Brilliant!
By Joe Starkey
Published: Thursday, July 12, 2012,
It made for a good radio topic, anyway: Would you be OK with your beloved Steelers relinquishing a regular-season home game in order to play one in Ireland?
The collective response was the most resounding “No!” heard in these parts since HBO asked Bill Cowher if he'd like his team featured on “Hard Knocks.”
As it turns out, you needn't worry. Here is the email I received from Steelers headquarters: “We will not give up a home game to play in Ireland.”
That's fairly clear.
So let's move on to a couple of questions left in the wake of Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney — the United States ambassador to Ireland — telling the BBC he'd love to see his team play a real game on the Emerald Isle, even if it isn't a “home game:”
• Is it a worthwhile idea?
• Will the NFL be the first major North American sports league to position a team overseas?
Addressing the second question first, I'll go with a definitive “maybe.” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made no secret of his interest in placing a team in London, where the NFL draws massive crowds to Wembley Stadium for an annual regular-season game.
Here's the problem: One game does not necessarily translate to sustaining an actual team.
You'd think after centuries of torturing themselves with soccer (no, I won't call it association football), the English would wake up one day and say, “My God, what we have done?” and turn to real football, once given a taste. But it's not that easy. Start with the fact that the United Kingdom is positively united in the fact that its children do not play American football. They grow up playing soccer.
In England, the English Premier League (that's soccer) rules the sports world, and its season runs concurrent to the NFL's. People prefer soccer's constant “action,” or flow, to American football's frequent stoppages. When the Steelers played a preseason game 350 miles from London, in Dublin in 1997, the sport blew people's minds.
Not necessarily in a good way.
The Associated Press quoted a Steelers fan as answering the following repeated questions from a bunch of teenage Gaelic football players:
• “Why do your players wear so much equipment?”
• “Why does the game take so long?”
They weren't familiar with the concept of commercials. So, yeah, even 15 years later, American football would be a tough full-time sell in England, Ireland or other possible targets for NFL missionaries, including Munich, Frankfurt and Edinburgh.
However, one should never underestimate the NFL public-relations machine. It's not a $9 billion-a-year business for nothing. The league continues to take incremental steps overseas, and powerful owners such as New England's Robert Kraft are bullish on placing a team in London. The St. Louis Rams recently signed a three-year deal to play annually there, starting against Patriots on Oct. 28. So this is real.
Within two years, it's likely the NFL will play two games overseas. That's where Ireland comes in, and even if the '97 Steelers-Bears exhibition hardly was a raging success — only 30,209 fans showed up — you can bet a real game would fill the seats at Croke Park Stadium (capacity: 82,500) in central Dublin.
Notre Dame and Navy will play a sold-out game in September at Dublin's smaller Aviva Stadium (capacity: 50,000). NFL officials recently visited Croke Park, and, according to the BBC, found the site “very attractive.”
It would be that much more attractive if packed with Terrible Towel-waving fanatics, which is precisely what would happen if the Steelers were invited.
Why shouldn't they go?
What better franchise to spread the gospel of American football?
Besides, the tailgate parties would be unbelievable (I hear they have beer in Ireland).
Some fans will worry about how the team rebounds from such a long trip. They shouldn't. The New York Giants played in London in the middle of the 2007 season and wound up winning four playoff games, including a Super Bowl upset of the unbeaten Patriots.
Surely, somebody will give up a home game to join the Steelers in Dublin. There is money to be made.
It might make for an incredible “Hard Knocks”-like show, too, though I'd bet Mike Tomlin's “No!” on that idea would be 10 times louder than Cowher's.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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