BOSTON — Only the hard-core sentimentalists among Baby Boomers cling to the notion that baseball remains at the core of our national sports consciousness or, indeed, anywhere near it.
While the World Series may be a marquee match-up — the New York Yankees, the game’s signature franchise, still looking for its first championship of the new millennium, vs. the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies — most of the baseball chatter through this post-season has been about non-competitive series, shoddy umpiring, endless games, unsuitable weather and, this week, a “Fatal Attraction” sex scandal in the ESPN broadcast ranks.
By contrast, the NFL season has produced compelling drama, delivering an extraordinary succession of thrilling and, often, improbable endings. (It also boasts a tale of resurrection which, depending on how you feel about Bret Favre, football’s greatest Hamlet, gratifies or galls).
It is not exactly breaking news that football has supplanted baseball as the nation’s pre-eminent sports obsession. The conventional wisdom has long had it that baseball — leisurely, pastoral and highly individualistic — was a better fit for a long-gone American era. Football is a game decidedly in tune with the times: violent, militaristic, hi-tech, corporate and, like most fans’ lives, ruled by both lines and clocks.
But what is usually ignored is another distinction that gives football a singular place in our culture. Unlike America’s two other major contributions to the sports landscape, baseball and basketball, football is uniquely our game. The other sports have traveled well. Both have become national passions in significant portions of the world: baseball in east Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean; basketball in Europe, South America, China and parts of Africa. Proof of how successful these exports have been is that the United States no longer reigns supreme — at least not absolutely — in either game.
Football, by contrast, hasn’t found its place, not really even a true niche, outside of the United States. (That’s ignoring Canada, which this country does all the time anyway. Besides, Canada doesn’t even play football by our rules.) The NFL abandoned its biggest effort back in 2007 when it folded NFL Europe, after 16 seasons had accomplished little beyond winning some scattered fans in Germany, Holland, Britain and Spain. (Raise your hands if you remember Hamburg defeating Frankfurt in the final World Bowl.)
Football has proved to be a very difficult game — expensive and complex — to export at the youth level. And some countries that appeared likely targets already had rugby, which, though different in its underpinnings, bears a sufficient resemblance to block football’s path. While the NFL hasn’t totally halted all football initiatives — China remains a key target — the NFL now believes that it doesn’t have to establish new leagues abroad to market its game there. Instead of selling teams that are poor imitations, the NFL is concentrating on selling the real deal, hoping that, eventually, TV packages and sales of NFL jerseys and paraphernalia will eventually provide a significant revenue stream.
Toward that goal, the New England Patriots will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London Sunday in the third annual Wembley Bowl. The game at the new national stadium — capacity 90,000 and, at a cost in excess of $1.5 billion, the most expensive sports stadium ever built — is a sellout. It attracts a mixture of Americans who are nursing a football jones, British sports enthusiasts who enjoy a novelty or a spectacle and a smattering of English fans who follow the NFL much as fans here do the Premiership.
The game, pitting the powerhouse Patriots against the winless Bucs, looms as something of a mismatch. But while a competitive contest would be smashing indeed, the real measure of the game will not be the final score. Rather it is how many pictures of the dimpled Pats star Tom Brady and his wife, Giselle Bundchen, festoon the pages of the local tabloids, how many folks start wearing the celebrated quarterback’s number 12 in the bastions of that other football and, finally, how many fans leave Wembley wanting to see more. Therein lies the foundation of a new NFL Europe.