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NFL's overseas growth is in London's shadow

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By David DeChant

As this year’s regular-season game in London approaches, the NFL’s efforts to expand the game of football internationally continue to have varying but powerful impacts around the world. According to a number of foreign-born NFL players, knowledge of and interest in the league in a number of regions has jumped dramatically in the past several years, as the game and the NFL brand have become increasingly more visible.

“We had maybe a 30-second highlight of a Super Bowl, you know, who ended up winning,” Patriots P Zoltan Mesko told PFW of what he remembers before moving to the U.S. from his hometown of Timisoara, Romania, a former part of Hungary, at age 12. “Really what they showed were the highlights on the biggest hits, not many touchdowns. You knew the brand image of the game was that there was a lot of hitting.”

Now 26, Mesko says people in the area are “undoubtedly” more interested in the game today, with several teams established in Romania who compete for the country’s Super Bowl-equivalent “Ro Bowl,” along with a number of different leagues in Hungary, including a league for women.

“They kind of scrap away at getting all their equipment together, but they really have a passion for the game through watching it,” Mesko said.

Bears DT Stephen Paea and Giants PK Lawrence Tynes have seen similar bursts of popularity in their respective home countries of Tonga and Scotland, and both attribute much of the increased awareness to media coverage of hometown players who have made it to the NFL.

Paea, who was born in New Zealand but lived in Tonga from infancy until age 17, says public knowledge of American football was almost nonexistent during his youth. He grew up playing rugby and heard about football from his cousin, Chris Maumalanga, who played college football at Kansas and later made the NFL and convinced Paea to come to the U.S. Paea says media coverage of himself and other players with Tongan backgrounds (like Ravens NT Haloti Ngata) is one of the few ways that more Tongans have learned about the sport.

"Whenever we have a game on ESPN, [friends and family] wear my jersey and they watch the game, but all the others, they just hear (about) it from other people," Paea says. "It’s not as big as rugby, but it’s growing. It’s the media, you know, even on Facebook. They’re the ones who post pictures of me with football.”

Similarly, Tynes didn’t really know much about the game growing up in an isolated town in Scotland, where he lived before moving to Florida at age 10. Today, the two-time Super Bowl winner says there are many in Scotland who follow the NFL, and not surprisingly, several of whom are Giants fans.

“I’ve done a number of things with the Scottish media and I think that’s made people over there more aware,” Tynes said. “When you get to a high level like we have, people get interested and they get to know the game.”

While Tynes thinks the sport’s popularity in the U.K. is growing, the most extensive European interest in football undoubtedly resides in Germany.

“I think that the ones that are playing over there, those are the biggest fanatics you’re going to get,” Mesko said of the many club players in Germany. “They’re very up to date on their teams and their fantasy teams. That’s the way it kinda expands. From that epicenter.”

Patriots OG Sebastian Vollmer and Giants DT Markus Kuhn were both born in Germany and played for German club teams before moving to the U.S. to play college football, Vollmer at Houston and Kuhn at North Carolina State.

“Soccer is always biggest like it is in Europe,” Vollmer said, “but there is a place for [football]. People who like the more physical things, physical sports, they see it and get drawn to it.”

Kuhn, drafted by the Giants in the seventh round in 2012, says interest is even expanded (and fan allegiances are developed) through the Madden video game series, in which he always played as Michael Strahan for the Giants. With the country’s history of support for NFL Europe — five of the league’s six existing franchises upon dissolution were based in Germany — and the current wealth of club level competition, Kuhn says there’s “plenty of passion” for the sport. Still, while some players dream of following in the footsteps of Kuhn and Vollmer, Germany isn’t exactly becoming an NFL farm system anytime soon.

“A lot of players definitely think about [the chance to play in the NFL], but it’s such a difficult thing to do and nobody really considers it a possibility,” Kuhn said. “Some want to come to play (in college) in America but it’s difficult with the university and the way it works in Germany. It’s a big step, a big commitment.”

Ironically, back in North America, in the country that produces the majority of the NFL’s foreign-born talent, many citizens prefer their own version of football to the NFL’s.

“There are a lot of Canadians who think the CFL is better (than the NFL),” Bears DE Israel Idonije told PFW. Idonije moved to Canada from his native Nigeria when he was four before playing his college career at the University of Manitoba. “I’ve had my fair share of discussions with Canadians about how great they think the CFL is.”

Idonije has seen both ends of the international perspective of football, having played and lived in Canada while also returning to his home country to run football camps (among other charitable events) with a few other Nigerians, including Bears teammate Amobi Okoye.

“Watching them adapt, trying to catch a football. It’s very difficult at first,” Idonije said of kids learning in Nigeria, where he says football is viewed as “just a violent game.”

“It’s a very complex game if you look at it big picture; simple when you look at it just position by position, so that’s what you try to do: Break it down into simplicity,” said Idonije.

Meanwhile, as some NFL players try to catalyze the sport in the their own countries — outside of Idonije and Okoye’s efforts, Paea says one of his post-NFL goals is to jumpstart football in Tonga — the league’s greatest expansion efforts are clearly focused on London. Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announced the addition of a second regular-season game in London for 2013 — in which the Vikings will “host” the Steelers — noting that the NFL wanted to “build that audience specifically.” Likewise, the league’s desires to eventually move a team overseas aren’t exactly a secret.

London native and Raiders rookie DE Jack Crawford thinks the NFL has had a backing in the area longer than most people know. Having moved to the U.S. when he was 16, Crawford says he was always aware of a significant NFL following in his home country and notes that while interest is not necessarily widespread, those who embrace it aren’t exactly casual fans.

“It’s cult-like for some of them, there are such intense, you know, fanatics,” Crawford told PFW. “I had a stretch where I got into it briefly, but not that deep. These are people who really know and follow the game just as close as in America.”

Coincidentally, Crawford says the best known team during his childhood was the squad that would ultimately draft him in the fifth round of 2012, the Raiders. For unknown reasons, Raiders games were frequently broadcast in London when Crawford was growing up, and as a result, the team has gained what Crawford says is a very strong fan base.

“Everybody knows them,” he said of his current team. “If I had been drafted by the Chiefs or somebody else, that wouldn’t have meant much to [friends and family in London], but they all know the Raiders.”

He says general NFL popularity in the area has significantly increased in the years since, with the success of the regular-season games in London being the biggest and most obvious example.

“They’ve sold out every game there really quickly and it’s a great atmosphere,” he said. “People want to go and I’m sure people are really excited for [having two London games in 2013].”

Still, the question of whether or not moving a franchise overseas would be feasible is very much up for debate, because of both logistical complications and worries about fan support. While players like Crawford, Paea (who played in Wembley Stadium with the Bears in 2011) and Mesko acknowledge the obvious time-difference challenges, they see the general enthusiasm for the sport as a sign that Londoners would embrace their own franchise.

“The support is there,” Crawford said. “London’s a huge city with lots of passionate fans.”

Mesko thinks it could work because, “it’s a very infectious sport,” that would draw fans with its excitement. “Soccer is number one there but [football] is definitely able to catch fire. It can have exponential growth.”

Still, Tynes is a bit more skeptical, making the case that the crowds at Wembley for the annual NFL game might actually represent the majority of the NFL fans in London, which would make it difficult to fill up the building for eight or more games per season. Oh, and of course, the distraction of the world’s game could complicate things as well.

“Soccer will always be on top, but people even care a lot more about lower level soccer than they do about football,” Tynes said. “There might be enthusiasm (for a London franchise) at first but I think it would fade a bit. I just feel like it wouldn’t last.”

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