Think globally: NFL visits England to increase awareness of football

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Saints defensive end Will Smith had one word to describe his stay in England since the team landed at Heathrow on the red eye Monday morning -- peaceful. That has something to do with their accommodations at The Grove, a five-star luxury estate 18 miles north of London. It's situated on a championship golf course where Tiger Woods took the AmEx Championship two years ago -- not that Smith has been working on his backswing since landing. On the contrary, it's been all football.

"It has actually helped our preparation to be here because it's been all business," says Smith. "In the states we work a seven-hour day and go home, but here it's been more like a 24-hour day because everything you need is at the hotel. You can take a nap and head downstairs to watch more film at night, or get another workout in or go for extra treatment. By the time the game comes on Sunday, we'll be more prepared than we've been all year."

With only his fellow Saints around, Smith said the trip has turned into a bonding experience that he hopes will spark New Orleans (3-4) much like a Week 8 trip to London by the Giants last year helped in their march to the Super Bowl title.

That sentiment was echoed by several Chargers who are staying in similar digs at the Pennyhill Park Hotel on 123 acres east of London. "I honestly think that's why the Giants were successful last year," said Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "They were kind of going through the same struggles. They came here and it kind of changed their season. We're hoping for the same kind of luck."

The staff at both resorts took pains to accommodate the NFL teams by creating practice facilities with all the amenities of home, albeit a little classier with the Saints having their ankles taped at the Sequoia Spa and getting changed in the grand ballroom that was transformed into their locker room. Media has been allowed at both teams' sites for open practice and press conferences, while the Saints cheerleaders have been doing their part to build excitement by drawing crowds in London at appearances.

With New Orleans as the designated home team Sunday, there will also be a Mardi Gras-style tailgate with floats and Cajun food outside of a soldout Wembley Stadium, where 83,000 fans will watch the game. Another two million are expected to tune in across the U.K. since the BBC agreed to broadcast the game. This is a huge boost from the Giants-Dolphins game, which was shown on Sky Sports, a pay channel that draws around 120,000 viewers for the three NFL games shown live every Sunday.

"We have a decent fan base," says Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFK UK, "but the challenge is growing that base five or six times over by building a bridge from the hype around the Wembley game [to] people wanting to tune in to Houston versus Minnesota [the following week]."

One of the ways they're hoping to do that is by educating people about the sport. After the 2007 game Kirkwood gathered more than 7,000 surveys from fans and found the three things they loved most about football were its strategy, its unpredictability and its physicality. "I realized then that we had a real problem because a newcomer wouldn't be able to appreciate the strategic nature of the game unless they understood the plays, and they wouldn't know what's predictable if they didn't know what was unpredictable, like the Rams beating the Cowboys."

So Kirkwood created a Web site in a sitcom format, with an actor playing a pre-mellowed Tom Coughlin-like coach called Coach Stilo, who introduces segments about football. Fifteen NFL players are featured on the site, explaining their positions in layman's terms, like Giants center Shaun O'Hara saying his role is like a bouncer, except he has two friends on either side of him and their job is to protect the guy behind them, who's the quarterback.

The players also point out things to look for, with O'Hara explaining that if the offensive line steps forward it will be a run play and if they drop back it will be a pass. And since the BBC shows an eighth of the commercials seen during a U.S. game, they'll fill the air time this Sunday with Jerry Rice going through the segments and directing viewers to the Coach Stilo site, which is a available in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese.

"It's a complex game," says marketing director Jonathan Klein, who left the NFL's New York headquarters in April to work in London through it's launch this week. "We just want to take the level of interest from the Wembley game and turn it into a level of understanding. We also wanted to humanize the players by filming them without their helmets or pads so the viewer could really see them, listen to them and hopefully learn something from them."

The Wembley games come on the heels of NFL Europa, which folded in June 2007. But that was a developmental league made up of second-tier players who rarely stuck on the same team beyond a season, which made it difficult to draw a loyal fan base. Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners are hoping to sell the real deal to the world by having at least two games a year outside of the U.S. for the next three years. Goodell even says he is open to the possibility of a Super Bowl at Wembley.

With globalization a priority, it also helps to have the players on board. "Soccer, basketball and baseball are both played and watched globally, but football isn't played around the world like the other three," says Smith. "I'm happy to be here to promote football to show people that it's the greatest sport in the world."