By the mid 1980’s the NFL had begun to unofficially overtake baseball as the United States favorite sport. Revenue and TV ratings had increased dramatically through the 70’s and 80’s and combined with the popularity of youth league, high school and college football, the sport had established itself as America’s national pastime.
Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and NFL team owners began to formulate ways to reach an international market and in 1986 the NFL began a series of international games when the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears met in London’s Wembley Stadium for an exhibition contest.
While somewhat still foreign to most of the U.K. the American brand of football had began a slow rise in popularity when British national television’s Channel 4 began televising an hour-long highlight show of the week’s previous NFL games in 1982, a first for the U.K.
One of those in England curious about the strange American game was then-17-year old Paul Stewart.
“I saw the show on Channel 4 and the first game I watched was the Buccaneers and the Dolphins Monday Night Football game in which the Buccaneers won,” Stewart told PewterReport.com. “I thought this team in orange and white must be pretty good and it started me following the team ever since.”
Stewart began putting together a newsletter about the Buccaneers and the NFL and that soon became the official Buccaneers’ fan club, the only one recognized in England by the team itself. Since that time the club has grown to over 300 members and Stewart has one of the most comprehensive Bucs’ websites on the Internet, Bucpower.com.
Four members of Stewart's club were in Tampa last week to watch the Bucs hosting the Saints and stopped by One Buccaneers Place to tour the facility. We had a chance to speak to them as they toured the media office and we asked them what it is about the Buccaneers that appealed to them.
“I think originally every one took pity of them because they never won a game, did they?” longtime fan Paul Davison said. “But they got better and better. And then they got better and better and when they won the Super Bowl it was the pinnacle of everything really.”
Fellow Buccaneer fan John Moran added his thoughts.
“Britain always has the reputation of going for the underdog,” Moran said. “It was one of those things like, there is always next year, and they never would quite get there. So to see the team under Dungy and Gruden metamorphosize into winning the Super Bowl was fantastic.”
“The other thing is a lot of people come here for the holiday,” Ian Taylor, another longtime Bucs supporter said. “So a lot of Brits who come over to Florida are people that do like watching sports. If you go to the Trop in the summer you will see British vacationers there as well.”
Another Buccaneers fan that came into town for the Saints game was Australian resident Kurt McDonald. The Aussie described his affinity for Tampa Bay.
“About 10 years ago I was home and watched this team and really enjoyed how they played,” McDonald said. “I enjoyed seeing No. 99 (Warren Sapp) laying some big tackles in there. And 47 (John Lynch) was flying around on the defense and it was brilliant to watch. That is my team and I have never wavered from it once.
“I get up at 3 a.m. to watch them. It is part of every Monday during football season for me.”
Stewart, who will be in Tampa November 13 for the home matchup with the Houston Texans, recalled his first trip to the United States in which he was able to see the Buccaneers play in person.
“It was 1988 (Bears vs. Buccaneers) and I was a guest of then head coach Ray Perkins,” Stewart said. “I was able to be on the sidelines and witness the team I had followed up close. That was a special memory.
“Other than winning the Super Bowl probably my favorite game was in 1997 when the Buccaneers played the Miami Dolphins on a Sunday night and beat them. I was a guest of the Glazer family and that game to me was one in which the team showed everyone around the nation what type of team Tony Dungy was building.”
Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris appreciates the support the Buccaneers get when traveling to England.
“We love London,” Raheem Morris told Buccaneers.com. “We love the facility they had set up for us, being out here for a week, getting acclimated to the time zone. I don’t know if it was an advantage but it was certainly a lot of fun to come out here and be with guys at Pennyhill.”
“The people at Pennyhill have been awesome. They have taken complete care of us. The food, the beverages, the rooms, the hospitality, the courtesy service, everything has been phenomenal.”
Stewart admitted that soccer is, and will always be, king in England, but the American version’s popularity continues to grow.
“We love the game in the U.K. and it may be surprising to most Americans how well we actually know the game,” Stewart said. “The true football fans here study their teams and know all their stats, players, former colleges and hometowns. We are also very educated on the specifics of the game including the coverages, rules and formations. We can explain a Cover 2 as well as most American fans. It has come along way over the last 25 years.”
While there will be a number of Buccaneers jersey among the 80,000 fans packed into Wembley Stadium Sunday, Stewart says the game is much more than the Bucs versus the Bears.
“When you see the fans, you will see jerseys from every NFL team,” Stewart said. “You will see jerseys and fans dressed in their favorite college teams as well, and even the English football teams.
"It is a celebration of football in general for us. A celebration not only of the two teams playing but a celebration of the game itself throughout the whole week.
“It has been a wonderful week here in England spending time watching the team," Stewart continued. "Very busy and full of excitement. But when Monday comes following the game I think I am going to need to sleep 24 hours straight."