LONDON – James Phillips held a Hoegaarden in his right hand as he leaned over the bar at The Harcourt Arms and chatted with the barkeep.
Amiable, worldly and knowledgeable about sports, he quickly became the ideal conversational partner for an American in London wondering whether the National Football League has any chance of becoming popular in Great Britain.
Phillips, 55, visited New Orleans five times, the last on the eve of the Super Bowl in February. He’s a soccer fan — Tottenham Hotspur is his team — and follows cricket and rugby, among other sports.
He didn’t know that the Vikings were scheduled to play the Steelers on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, but he did not dismiss the league’s chances in the UK.
“There are people here who aren’t so keen on what you call soccer, and I have found that they are the ones that are interested in American football,’’ he said. “We do get the Super Bowl on the telly here, and there are people who would not otherwise be interested in football who will watch.
“There’s no doubt that a proper competitive game is a draw. This game at Wembley is not a friendly, right? People do not want to see friendlies.’’
A friendly is an exhibition soccer match, much like an NFL preseason game.
“Even some English soccer games that are friendlies attract an under-capacity crowd,’’ Phillips said. “They’re only taken 50-60 percent seriously. That’s not what people want here. Any kind of competitive sport, people are interested in.’’
Visits to a few pubs around London find the televisions filled with soccer and rugby. The Americas Cup led newscasts and dominated the back pages of the tabloids. The NFL may be receiving coverage in the UK. but if it is, it’s not easy to find.
The NFL has announced that it has sold out the 84,000 seats at Wembley.
“I still say it’s a good move, to bring this game here,’’ Phillips said. “You could say that 84,000 tickets is an extremely small proportion of the population. When the USA held the World Cup in ’94, the stadiums were full, but if you interviewed people in general they might say, ‘Oh, is that really happening here?’ The States are full of people who like soccer. For them, it was a big deal. For the indigenous American population, it was not.’’
Americans who don’t like soccer deride players who “flop,’’ falling down to gain an advantage. Soccer, they say, doesn’t correspond with America’s hands-on, frontal ethos.
“Well, we’ve got rugby, which is like football without pads,’’ Phillips said. “The big stuff, the big occasions, everybody likes. The Olympics brought out everybody last year. People like the cricket — it’s an empire game. We like sports that are a bit of a spectacle, and American football is quite a spectacle.’’
Phillips was asked whether an NFL franchise could succeed in London.
“Oh, I don’t see why not,’’ he said, waving a fresh Hoegaarden. “This is quite a big city. We’ve got room for an awful lot.’’