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Big game keeps British faithful up late

February 03, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON — Even though NFL games halt for commercials, halt for huddles, halt for commercials, halt for timeouts, halt for commercials, halt for red-flag video reviews and halt for commercials, some Brits do watch them.

These dogged citizens of the birthplace of soccer, which seldom halts, watched in the 1980s when British NFL interest crested, stopped watching in the 1990s when it plummeted, and trickled back in the 2000s to hint at a future second crest.

Four million watched the 1985 Bears wallop some other team in Super Bowl XX, and 90,000 more might fill Wembley Stadium next Oct. 28 to watch the Giants play the Dolphins, a matchup NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced as the NFL's second foreign regular-season game.

Hours after Tottenham and Manchester United finish England's soccer weekend on Sunday, and moments after most Brits have gone to bed or thought about it, about 4,000 will watch Super Bowl XLI -- which kicks off at 11:18 p.m. -- at Super Bash IV in London's Battersea Park on the south edge of the Thames River.

If the overall numbers match last year, an estimated 1.2 million of the 60 million Brits will watch.

Some, meanwhile, will watch with their wallets. A country in which "punting" has nothing to do with fourth down has assimilated the Super Bowl's dazzling array of gambling veins.

Only one wagering service, Ladbrokes, offers more than 100 "markets," said a spokesman, Neil Weinberg.

Those markets include the customary esoterica, so that Brits can bet on Peyton Manning's rushing yardage, the game's total receiving yardage, whether there'll be a successful two-point conversion, even who will kick off, that last one ideal for those with jobs on Monday morning.

Pounds wagered at Ladbrokes have increased 25% in one year, Weinberg said, and fivefold in a decade -- from 200,000 pounds and only one market (who will win) 10 years ago, to one million pounds (about $1.96 million in U.S. dollars) and 100-plus markets for this year's game.

With a wee-hour kickoff, punters will watch punters (and other players) not so much at betting parlors but in homes, on Sky Sports, which last fall reached the largest NFL TV contract outside the United States, extending the coverage it began in the late 1990s for four more years.

Neil Reynolds will watch, not as a punter but in Battersea Park as a public-relations consultant for the NFL's office near Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. He started watching in 1983 at his childhood home in Maidstone, Kent, an hour south of London.

In those days, TV channels did not proliferate. Channel 4 would show NFL highlights from the previous Sunday on the following Sunday and, Reynolds said, "All it was up against was a program about antiques and two religious programs." Not only that, but English soccer, marred back then by hooliganism, hit a nadir.

It was then young Reynolds spotted an American rookie sensation named Dan Marino, who forged more than enough highlights to corral an 11-year-old's imagination.

By Super Bowl XIX, in January 1985, Reynolds yearned to watch Marino against Joe Montana's 49ers, but the late-hour, school-night kickoff and some parenting conspired to thwart him -- apparently. Yet while his father, Maurice, watched his beloved 49ers torch Neil's Dolphins, the father didn't know Neil eavesdropped from the hallway.

As global news then traveled, it could take a week to learn a final score, but still, Brits knew well surnames such as Montana, Marino, Payton and "The Refrigerator" Perry. Neil annoyed his parents listening to Dolphins games through a maddeningly wandering signal from Armed Forces Radio. That signal left again one day in December 1990, when the Dolphins played the Chiefs in a playoff game and Kansas City's Nick Lowery lined up for a potential tying field goal.

Typically, the signal would stray to either a Spanish broadcast of soccer scores or an Italian singing opera, and before Lowery kicked, it went to Spanish soccer. It took 15 minutes to learn Lowery had missed.

"For the fan," Reynolds said, "we've never had it so good," even if nobody can stay up for Monday night games that start at 2 a.m.

Now, Sky will have commercial-break Super Bowl commentary from a broadcast team in Miami including Nick Halling, an analyst more NFL-astute than 90% of American NFL commentators and a Steelers fan who hoped Pittsburgh would get the Wembley game so Big Ben (quarterback, Roethlisberger) could pose in front of Big Ben (clock).

That broadcast team also will include, well -- Don Johnson.

John Porter will watch, even though he completely missed the 1980s wave given the inconvenience of having been born in 1990.

He embodies the 2000s wavelet that watches on Sky, for which you have to pay extra, one decade after Channel 4 discontinued its coverage after soccer rebounded toward its remorseless eminence of today.

Still, young Porter, by now 16, caught his first game in 2001 or 2002, involving Denver, and his interest sprouted sufficiently to hatch his own website, gbnflr.vze.com, replete with a staff of Brit columnists. "The main thing I enjoy about the NFL is anybody can win on any week. It's all about parity now, isn't it?" Porter said.

It's a coincidence, but the Bears have seemed to mirror Britain's NFL interest, such that Porter's father hadn't watched for eons until a few Sunday nights ago, when Chicago went up by 25 and clinched its first Super Bowl berth in 21 years at around 11 p.m., Euxton time.

"He was very pleased," John Porter said, "and I think he was more surprised because he's kept out of the game until I started watching it. He was surprised the Bears haven't been since then. He thought they were better than that."

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