Mike Preston: Ravens' visit shows NFL at home in London

At first I wasn’t sure how about this Ravens-Jaguars game in London. It seemed too far away and I anticipated most of the fans being from either Jacksonville or Baltimore.

I was wrong.

OK, I admit the seven- to eight-hour flight can be a pain, but not much different than flying from Baltimore to San Francisco, Oakland or Seattle. It takes some time getting used to people driving on the other side of the car and on the other side of the road, and you sometimes swear they’re going to crash into your car head on.

There are other minor adjustments like the high cost of living and learning little things like how to turn the shower on, but it’s cool to stay in another country, learn about new culture and visit some great historical places.

And then you get to watch some NFL football. Life really doesn’t get much better.

I was surprised how much the British like this game. There are citizens here from other American cities who watch, but the locals wore jerseys from the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Chicago Bears.

Even the New York Jets were represented.

Now if I had seen a Cleveland Browns jersey, I would recommend to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he move a franchise here right away.

The NFL has been playing in London since 2007 and they averaged about 80,000 to 81,000 in attendance. According to the NFL, only three percent of those who watch games there are Americans and the rest are from London or elsewhere in Great Britain.

There is definitely a buzz.

“We will be here one day,” former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli said. “The fans want it, the NFL wants it and this is a great city, one of the greatest sports cities in the world. It’s going to happen one day. The UK has such a rich tradition.”

You can’t say that all of London is interested in the game, but there is a good, solid core group, which is why the NFL keeps coming back. The NFL wants a worldwide product and London is a great stage.

Jacksonville has struggled with attendance in its own state of Florida and you can understand why the Jaguars have cozied up to fans ,having played in London four straight years.

Boselli, as well as former Jaguars Mark Brunell and Fred Taylor, have become regulars on the London circuit. Jaguars general manager David Caldwell spoke at the NFL UK forum Saturday. The Jaguars can grow with London fans because they have a nice group of young players such as offensive tackle Cam Robinson, running back Leonard Fournette, linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

“That’s why we got Leonard and then Robinson, we’re trying to keep and put together a well-rounded team,” Caldwell said. “With players like Ramsey and Myles Jack, we feel as though we can get better and keep it all together.”

London fans have taken notice.

“All the games are well attended,” said Paul Dobson, 50, a police officer in northern London. “Jacksonville has a lot of fans. They do a lot in the community.”

“I’m a big fan of their cheerleaders,” he said with a smile.

Dobson became an NFL fan in the 1980s, first watching the game on TV. As an exchange student, he later lived in San Jose, Calif., for three years. In San Jose, he went to a lot of high school and college games, but his favorite player was Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

On Saturday, Dobson sported the jersey of his current favorite, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

“I’ve always been a defensive-minded guy,” Dobson said. “When the NFL started playing here, there were about five Seattle fans on Regent Street and now there are hundreds. Unless you go watch a game personally, you really can’t comprehend the speed and power of this game.”

Dobson knows about the Ravens.

“I know they moved from Cleveland because of the trouble [late owner Art Modell] was having with getting a new stadium, and that they are Super Bowl winners,” Dobson said. “I know about Ray Lewis and I know about Joe Flacco.”

The NFL held a contest at the forum Saturday where British fans imitated Lewis’ famed “Squirrel” introductory dance. It was entertaining, but ugly.

British fans don’t care. They just want football.

Jordan Sheehan, 23, is from north London and is a masonry worker. He fell in love with the NFL after he started playing the John Madden video game in 2007.

He has been to just about every pro football game played in London. He played soccer and cricket, but thinks the NFL is getting bigger.

“When I first came to this forum, there were about 50 stools and now it’s filled,” said Sheehan, who was wearing a Tom Brady jersey. “I love the way these games are scripted and planned, and then on game day it comes down to someone making one play or one catch. It’s that competitive.”

There have been few details leaked about if or when the NFL will move to London permanently. There are going to be problems with travel and taxes. There could be other problems like living arrangements.

To be honest, most players, coaches and equipment managers from NFL teams don’t like flying across the pond to play a game.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti did his players a favor by allowing them to soak up the atmosphere for a few days instead of flying them in the night before the game and then home immediately afterward.

There is also the threat of terrorism, which is stronger in London than back home.

“You live with it and you get used to it,” Sheehan said. “You always stay on the watch, but it’s not that big of a deal.”

Dobson agreed. He keeps hearing an NFL team will be in place by 2022.

“I’ve been a police officer for 26 years,” Dobson said. “We had the IRA bombing London and now the Islamic extremists. I’ve been around for a while. You just have to be aware and get used to it. But you have to go on with your life or otherwise you won’t have any fun.”

And that’s what pro football is supposed to be about.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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