In 1983, the Minnesota Vikings played in the first-ever NFL game staged in Europe, when they faced the St. Louis Cardinals in a preseason game at London’s old Wembley Stadium. Thirty years later the Vikings are back in London. This time the Vikings’ game across the pond brings different accommodations, setting, and significance.
The NFL’s first attempt at a football game in London was a difficult endeavor. London’s Wembley Stadium – with its setup for soccer – wasn’t equipped for the NFL. However, the game’s organizers endured and the Vikings and Cardinals battled in an exhibition game on a Saturday evening August 6th, 1983.
The game itself – like most preseason games – wasn’t very exciting. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 28-10, as Minnesota tallied 393 yards of offense to St. Louis’ 193.
The game’s first points – thus the first NFL points scored in Europe – appropriately belonged to a kicker. The Vikings’ Rick Danmeier booted a 41-yard field goal in the first quarter. He also kicked a 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals’ Neil O’Donoghue, a native of Ireland, wasn’t so lucky on the pitch as he missed three of his four field goal attempts.
The player of the game was Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer. He threw two second-quarter touchdown passes (9 yards to Ted Brown, 31 yards to Leo Lewis), and completed 13 of his 19 pass attempts for 157 yards and had one interception.
The highlight of the game was a 76-yard punt return touchdown by the Vikings’ Rufus Bess at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The game’s best stories revolved around the logistical and cultural barriers that had to be overcome in order for the game to take place.
John Marshall, the game’s organizer, should be remembered for his efforts. This game probably wouldn’t have taken place if it wasn’t for Marshall’s vision, hard work, and adaptability.
Setting up Wembley Stadium for football brought up a lot of unexpected challenges.
In all of Europe there weren’t any goal posts that matched the NFL’s specifications, so Marshall had to custom order a set from an English company for $6,000 dollars. According to Marshall the goal posts arrived just “in the nick of time”.
Even finding a way to display the score was difficult. Wembley Stadium’s electronic scoreboard needed a special device from the States in order to tally scores other than soccer goals. Down markers and 30-second clocks were also flown in from the States.
Lastly and maybe most amusing was that the players had to dress for the game in their hotel rooms, because Wembley Stadium’s locker rooms were too small.
For all of his trouble Marshall lost a reported $750,000 dollars by staging the game – he had spent nearly $1.5 million dollars. Only 32,847 seats were sold for the game, and Marshall needed to sell at least 68,000 to break even.
However, the game was a success because it opened up a new market. “We never expected to break even, we just wanted to introduce the game to Britain”, stated Marshall. He also thought the game was “an incredible hit”.
The English press thought otherwise. The Sunday Express levied the harshest criticism.
“All those endless collisions of outsize flesh and blood… all those baffling hand signals and free-coded rhythm grunts, which only players of their own side could understand… and all those coaches barking orders – to the outsider it was a disorganized mess. A Big Bore!”
Pushing aside the naysayers, the NFL returned to London in 1986, when the defending Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears faced off against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL’s first preseason American Bowl. From there it has snowballed into London hosting two regular-season games this season. All together London will have hosted 17 games through 2013 – more than any international city. The Cardinals and Vikings were there at the beginning of something special.
Notes: Tickets to the game were kind of on the pricey side for 1983. The cheap seats were $7.50, but the better seats had a price tag of $40 to $75 dollars. Back then that was nearly twice as much as choice seats at a top-flight soccer match… The game kicked off at 5:30 pm London time, so that local TV stations back in America wouldn’t be broadcasting the game live early in the morning… The teams only had one day of practice in London; as they arrived a day before the game… Ten women from two U.S. Air Force bases in the U.K. were brought in as “last-minute” cheerleaders… The Vikings were the designated home team… The game’s organizer, John Marshall, stated he had plans to stage NFL exhibitions in Milan, Munich, Paris, and Tokyo, in addition to five more games in London; in the end Marshall never staged those games… Marshall originally wanted to stage a Super Bowl rematch between the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins in London. Earlier that year the Dolphins and Redskins drew in a TV audience of 4.5 million people for London’s first live broadcast of a Super Bowl.