London – Give the Vikings credit: They’re good sports.
They suffered their most galling loss in three years Sunday. They boarded a redeye charter Monday night. They landed in London in the late morning Tuesday and instead of busing to their hotel, shuttled directly to Wembley Stadium.
Still bleary-eyed, they showed up at a smattering of soccer pitches outside the stadium, where they’ll play the Steelers on Sunday, to promote their league and the game. They ran London schoolkids through football drills and acted much more cheerful than typical international travelers.
Chad Greenway chased kids around in a mini-version of flag football. Adrian Peterson told the kids to “go run around outside.” Jared Allen told them to eat fruits and vegetables. Leslie Frazier ran the kids through drills, clapping and yelling encouragement.
Their ownership sacrificed a true home game in exchange for a game in London, one in which a loss could end the competitive portion of the season for a team that made the playoffs last year.
Instead of complaining, the Vikings said all of the things an NFL marketer would want them to say.
“We were excited to be one of the four teams to have the opportunity to come over here this year, to be able to spread the brand of the NFL,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I think everyone in our organization has done a great job. They’ve prepared us since last spring to make this as normal a week as possible, to make this a normal week in every way. I think this is nice for us, especially at this time in our season, to get away and be in a hotel together and have a bonding experience.”
Cornerback Marcus Sherels was asked if, when he signed up to play at the University of Minnesota, he could have envisioned playing in an NFL game in London. “Not really, nope,” he said. “We look at it as a business trip, but at the same time, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to come over to London and explore and see this beautiful city. Everyone’s looking forward to it. Wembley Stadium was actually the thing I wanted to see.”
Watching the Vikings try to explain American football to London children left you feeling you were watching one of those overblown Hollywood blockbusters with all-star casts that wind up making you wish you had just watched TV.
The NFL is at its peak of popularity. London is a wonderful and immense city. The Vikings are excellent ambassadors for their team and the league. Adrian Peterson might be the most impressive athlete and physical specimen in the league. The kids were entertained, even when they couldn’t get the team mascot, Viktor, to take off his gargantuan fake head.
But do all of these things really belong in the same movie?
The NFL wants to invade new markets. This makes sense if you care only about TV ratings. If you can get people in England — or Mexico or Turkey or Greece — to watch the NFL, the NFL and its partners will make extra billions. The NFL has even contemplated expanding to London.
These are notions justified only by greed.
It’s hard enough for NFL players to perform well and remain healthy flying cross-country before and after games in the U.S. Forcing them to fly on a redeye in seats that do not accommodate their immense bodies is silly. If and when a team is based in London, it will face a dramatic competitive disadvantage.
Plus, it’s not like London is begging for the NFL. The kids at Wembley on Tuesday didn’t seem to know or care much about the game. They were more impressed by the players’ size than their fame.
The NFL is thriving as currently constituted, and it survived its most dire threat when it settled the concussion lawsuit with former players.
The NFL is contemplating world domination when it should be worried about product dilution. It’s great to be in London, but the NFL doesn’t need to expand, especially to markets where it can’t even compete with cycling.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org