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Football at Wembley — with a twist

The NFL markets its game abroad, starting with New England vs. Tampa Bay in London on Sunday.

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.