By Karine Hains aka Pheebs888

Once a year, at the end of October, London goes crazy…NFL crazy and this year is no exception. In fact, this year there is even more madness. For the first time ever this morning on the eve of the International Series match-up between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos, the NFL held a questions and answers session with the commissioner Roger Goodell and 100 lucky fans. Thankfully, I was one of those lucky fan and I got to attend the session prior to heading to the NFL Fan Rally in Trafalgar Square in the afternoon.

landmarkThe first NFL fan forum of the sort was held a year ago prior to the draft, since then 2 more have been held in Green Bay and in New Orleans but this morning was the first international fan forum and it was definitely a success. Staged at the 5 stars London Landmark Hotel, the session allowed fans to ask any questions they wanted to the commissioner. The crowd was rather colorful as fans came dressed in their favorite team’s colors, the only unrepresented team being the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The session kicked off with a question about the planned 18 games scheduled and the likelihood that a longer season would mean more injuries. Goodell stated that the decision had not yet been made to extend the regular season calendar and that if the NFL was to do it, they would only do it properly. The main reasons behind the proposed change were that fans want more games that actually mean something, regular season games, important games. The league is considering staging more games overseas and does not want to deprive the fans of yet more home games. He also added that a longer season meant that injured players would have longer to recuperate and potentially be able to return in time for the start of the playoffs.

Picking up on the burning topic that is injuries to player, the next fan asked the commissioner what the NFL is doing to provide for players once their short career is overgoodell photo due to injuries such as concussions? The man of the moment was quick to answer that the NFL is leading the charge in that field and that it starts with prevention. Initiatives include developing better equipment such as improved helmets, ensuring that players are wearing the protective gear they should be wearing and if an injury does happen, provide the best medical care in the world to the player affected. The league is also looking at providing pension and help not only to the victims of injuries themselves but also to their family. He also added that health was one of the major concerns of the league which explained the recent rule change.

I took that as my cue to ask a question: “The NFL currently offers a great product, spectacular offensive plays and hard hitting defensive plays, do you not think that the new rules are somewhat restrictive on the defence and may prevent the defensive players to do their job as well as they could because they have the possibility of a suspension or fine in the back of their mind?”

The reply came quite hastily: “That is the point, the rule is not to hinder the defence, this is a protection for both offensive and defensive players. Both can be injured in hits that we are sanctioning here. I want the players to have that at the back of their minds, I want those hits using bad technique to stop.”. He then swiftly moved along to the next question, clearly the debate over the new rule is somewhat of a sore spot for the commissioner. As demonstrated in the afternoon as well when the 49ers coach Mike Singletary said on stage: “Football is a tough game and the intensity is great, the intensity of the game should not be diminished…but I should let that go”. At which point the presenter said: “It’s okay, he’s gone now (Goodell)”.

The European fans were also very keen on questioning the commissioner on the future of the NFL in Europe. Questions such as the possibility of a team based in London and of venturing in other European cities were raised and handled masterfully by Goodell. He told the fans what they were dying to hear by confirming that a team in London is a real possibility which is being looked into. The league is thinking about staging more games in London next year to see if the market could handle more than 1 game a year. As for trying other cities, Goodell stated that they prefer building a very strong successful foundation in London and then take that model elsewhere once it is ready. The main reason for the choice of London being that historically the NFL has been in the UK a lot and that the media offers a lot of sports coverage. Therefore, for the immediate future it’s not looking good for other European fans, they will just have to carry on making a yearly trip to London.

Other topics covered included the use of technology in the game, the worrying situation of the Collective Bargaining Argument (according to the commissioner there WILL be football next year),the increase in counterfeited merchandise online and the opposition of the American fans to the possible expansion of the League in Europe. Overall, it was a great experience to be part of and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The commissioner came across very well, poking fun at some fans, interacting with kids and in a nutshell, really working the crowd. Once the session was over, we were driven by coach to Trafalgar Square for the fan rally.

TrafalgarUpon arriving, I was pleasantly surprised by how busy it looked. However, I was a little bit disappointed because not that many fans were sporting their team’s jersey. Perhaps this means a lot of people just happened to stumble on the rally and decided to go in. On offer during the afternoon were (numerous) performances by the 49ers’ cheerleaders, the British dance group Flawless and a band called “The Cuban Boys” which I will admit I had never heard of before. In between performances, there were also interviews with Roger Goodell, Mike Singletary, some of the 49ers defensive players and most importantly Jerry Rice. The crowd was particularly receptive to the San Francisco defensive players as two of them demonstrated their dancing skills and to Jerry Rice (who wouldn’t be, he is after all football royalty!).

Fans present at the rally could also show off their Madden skills in the EA sports tent at their own risks though, I must admit it was funny to see a 10 year old boy positively destroy a 40 year old defensive line lookalike. Merchandise was sold there as well although the selection was disappointing compared to what is normally on offer at the pre-Wembley tailgate party so I elected to wait until the next day to purchase my usual commemorative ball. Overall, the fan rally was a good idea but it could have been organized and advertised in a better way. I’ll put this down to the fact that it was decided to hold that event quite late in the day (injerryrice early October) so there was not that much time to get the word out.

Today, the madness will continue with the pre-Wembley tailgate party and the game itself kicking off at 5.00 PM. The home team for the duel will be the 49ers so expect to see plenty of red flags or towels in the stands as those are normally provided to fans as freebies. I cannot wait to see how Troy Smith does in his first start for San Francisco and I hope that Crabtree will make me proud to be wearing his jersey! Expect another report on the tailgate and game later this week!