Super Bowl interest grows in foreign lands

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 30, 2004

HOUSTON - The Chinese hadn't arrived yet, but dozens of other foreign journalists had already gathered for a party at the massive Galleria shopping mall, where a band called ''Plastic Farm Animals'' and several young ice skaters provided entertainment.

''They are butchering some of our beloved Liverpool folk songs,'' said Nick Szczepanik of The Times of London as a band labored through a Beatles' number.

The Super Bowl, perhaps the most American of all sporting events, is a worldwide curiosity, chronicled by some 400 members of the international media gathered here this week. In the wee hours of Monday in Europe, and after daybreak in Asia, television sets will be tuned in for a live broadcast of the game.

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''Not many people know what is going on on the field,'' said Akira Kuboshima, editor of Japan's American Football Magazine. ''But still they can be excited to watch the battle between the teams.''

And even a familiar face or two.

Eight players in uniform on Sunday once played in Europe.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had two stints there. The first time he was a backup to yet-to-be-famous Kurt Warner, who went on to lead St. Louis to the Super Bowl four years ago. The second time he helped Frankfort win the World Bowl.

''I think we are just the most underdeveloped position in the game,'' Delhomme said. ''That's why NFL Europe is important. You go over and play. You get game experience.''

The NFL makes a concerted international marketing effort, with the ''American Bowl'' played every season in Japan and NFL Europe exposing the game to thousands on he continent.

Sunday's game will be beamed to a potential audience estimated by the NFL at 1 billion in 229 countries and territories. It will be broadcast in 21 languages, including Arabic, Cantonese, Icelandic, Russian, Serbian and Thai.

Fourteen television and radio stations from 10 countries will broadcast the game on-site including, for the first time, a crew from China. Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, who speaks fluent Mandarin, will be the color analyst.

''The event is one of the greatest sporting occasions in the world,'' Zhigang Shi, producer of China's CCTV broadcast, said in a statement released by the NFL.

Not that the NFL is taking the world by storm. ''Football, outside the United States, is played with a round ball, covered with black and white squares, and kicked by players in shorts and high socks.

''In Germany, the most popular sports are soccer, soccer, soccer and then soccer,'' said Gunter Zapf, of Germany's Premiere television.

Many international sports fans find American football to be tedious, with all the stoppages in play interspersed by a few seconds of action.

''It's getting popular more and more, but not like baseball or sumo or soccer,'' said Hiroshi Ikezawa, associate editor of The Japan Times, attending his 11th Super Bowl. ''Only a few people play it and a few watch it. They say it's too complicated, with too many rules.''

Still, two Japanese television stations have 50 people apiece at the Super Bowl. Their live telecasts will begin at 8 a.m., Monday, Japanese time.

Szczepanik, who once lived in Miami, loves the NFL, but many of his British countrymen have a hard time understanding why.

''There is a certain section of people who say, well, it's rugby for sissies because they wear protective gear and they wear helmets,'' he said. ''But I say yeah, well, you don't get quite so many people breaking their necks and their collar bones in American football.''

Even if the Super Bowl itself is confusing, or a bore, there still are entertainment perks like the pre-game festivities and the halftime extravaganza.

''There are enough people who are willing to give American football a try and they like it,'' Szczepanik said. ''They like the glamour of it and they like the image of it.''

And what image would that be? It's certainly not on a scale with the month-long World Cup.

''It's the rush for land in the West made into a game, isn't it?'' Szczepanik said. ''It's all about gaining yardage and stealing the other guy's property. It's the gold rush. That's why the 49ers are so popular.''