Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Worth a try

One of the personal challenges I have set myself is to help unleash the sport of rugby on the American people. USA Rugby’s mission captures the spirit: 'Inspire America to Fall in Love with Rugby.' So with my head and heart occupied by taking Rugby to America, I’m fascinated by some action the other way. For instance I read the NFL is attempting to take American Football to the rest of the world. It has always struck me as strange that the two classic American sports, football and baseball, have not had the international uptake you’d expect. That means very limited international competition and the loss of huge sources of potential excitement, creativity and authenticity.

The NFL’s problem is that people who have not been born into the culture of the game just don’t seem to get it, or don’t want to get it. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe the razzmatazz has gone to such heights that it’s what the game seems to be about. Cheerleaders and extreme uniforms rather than superb athleticism combined with awesome discipline and timing. At its core American football is simple. It’s all about territory. Take it, hold it, repeat. But this fundamental idea is surrounded with hundreds of complicated rules, a stop/start rhythm the uninitiated find irritating and the distinctive two-teams-in-one offence/defence system.

Despite the challenges, winning international audiences has become critical for any sport. We’re not just talking about high level competition (although the contribution of national style to global football is a topic of endless fascination – who could forget the drama of the methodical and disciplined Germans defeated by the stylish and adventurous Spanish in the Euro 2008 final?) but the opportunity to participate in the gigantic sports media market. In 2006 FIFA enjoyed about $1.4 billion in TV and new media rights – nudging the top-dog Olympics Games. The IOC reported $1.6 billion in TV revenue from Beijing. Why wouldn’t the NFL want a piece of this action?

To take on the job the NFL has invented Coach Stilo who is heading online to teach the world the ins and outs of the game. How long does it take to learn the basics? Three hours apparently with tutorials and tests. Sound like fun to you? Personally I’d rather go to a sports bar for a couple of games and ask the guy next to me what’s going on.