Americans seek new markets

LONDON - As England's David Beckham helps soccer gain a foothold in the United States, America's favourite football is heading to London's Wembley Stadium with similar intent, aiming to become one of Britain's most popular sports.

LONDON - As England's David Beckham helps soccer gain a foothold in the United States, America's favourite football is heading to London's Wembley Stadium with similar intent, aiming to become one of Britain's most popular sports.

The National Football League has already conquered America, with almost every game a sell-out, waiting lists of up to 25 years for season tickets and polls consistently showing its huge appeal.

The United Kingdom is its next target, with the Miami Dolphins facing the New York Giants at Wembley stadium on Sunday in the first ever regular season game outside the Americas.

"In the longer term we have a vision to be a top five sport [in the UK]," NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood said in an interview, with the sport seeking to find a place just behind soccer, rugby, cricket and motor racing's Formula One.

The NFL first gained popularity in the UK in the 1980s when broadcaster Channel 4 began showing games.

The Super Bowl was screened live for the first time in January 1983, featuring the Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, and a series of pre-season games were played at Wembley in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Dolphins remain one of the most popular teams in the UK, trailing only the New England Patriots, according to the 125000 registered users of the NFL's UK website http://www.nfluk.com.

"For a short period the Super Bowl rated higher than [soccer highlights show] Match of the Day but then other sports started doing better, reinventing themselves," Kirkwood said.

English soccer launched its hugely successful Premier League in 1992 while more recently cricket has found a new format, Twenty20, which has helped the game reach a wider audience.

But in the last three or four years The NFL has begun to gain wider coverage and there will be 130 live games on television in the UK this year, more than England's Premier League, Kirkwood said.

Britain's national broadcaster BBC is showing highlights of the Wembley game and live coverage of the Super Bowl.

Kirkwood said one of the keys for the sport to be successful in the UK was to develop local talent.

The league will soon sign off on a five-year plan to develop British players.

"We will then have a clear pathway for British players to play in NFL games," he said.

Two British-born players will be in the Giants team at Wembley, kicker Lawrence Tynes from Greenock in Scotland and Londoner Osi Umenyiora, who is a defensive end.

The Wembley game was quickly sold out with 87 percent of the fans coming from the UK and the balance evenly split between mainland Europe and the United States.

The Giants will be hosted in London by English Premier League soccer club Chelsea while the Dolphins will be using the facilities of one of the country's leading rugby union teams, London Wasps.

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