The NFL in the UK – Same Game, Different Experience
- Updated: October 3, 2016
A long way from home, 3,573 miles away from Philadelphia, I found myself waking up on a Sunday morning with one thing on my mind, NFL Football. A month into my four month stay in London, I woke up anxious for a slice of home; that is when I decided I had to go to Wembley Stadium to at least see what NFL Football in the U.K. looks like. There are some smaller differences between the gameplay, but overall the primary difference came from the lack of unity behind one team. Being a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I am accustomed to an entire crowd wearing the Eagles’ green, white, or black apparel, with the occasional away team jersey, and the few stragglers wearing jerseys irrelevant to the game (usually a Tom Brady or Brett Farve jersey). At Wembley Stadium, it was like a shrine to all of NFL, people who waited weeks to show up at the game and show “this is the team I support” even though it was a Colts vs. Jags game. That being said, the crowd of 83,764 people was widely supporting the Jacksonville Jaguars, despite the thousands of different jerseys and shirts being worn.
The crowd culture was wildly different, I stood up and screamed (out of excitement) during an Andrew Luck interception, only to shortly realize that I was the only person in my section that had done so. “Please Remain Seated” was plastered in front of the first rows and the fans remained seated for 99% of the game, despite being dialed into the game. Although sports gambling is legal in the U.K. and Wembley Stadium has several sports books built into the stadium, similar to a gift shop; it seems as if the NFL may have asked Wembley to keep those facilities closed. The betting culture was still strong, most people in the crowd had at least a pound wagered on the game for fun, myself included.
The pregame festivities featured Robin Thicke performing, for who knows what reason, followed by the American National anthem, then followed by “God Save the Queen.” The fans as individuals seemed to understand the game, but as a collective the crowd was doing things that were very U.K. oriented. They began chanting every time the Jacksonville Jaguars scored, not a song with words, just a vague chant similar to the popular “Zombie Nation” chant. Not to mention the very odd ritual of simply “booing” the Colts offense every third down.
I had interviewed Bleacher Report’s writer Garry Hayes who covers Chelsea Football Club for my podcast, in which I asked him “Why don’t you watch NFL Football?” To which he responded that the game was too slow, hard to follow, and not suited for a European audience. It was obvious that the NFL was attempting to address these problems as well as create a spectacle, a massive stage for Robin Thicke to perform on, fire shoots 20 feet into the air every time the Jags score, and every commercial break the “Pepsi Max – Party Squad” is throwing t-shirts to the sounds of Trick Daddy’s “Let’s Go” and DMX’s “Party Up.” The game pace was surprisingly quick despite the large sum of penalties, which seemed to plague both teams.
As for the interactions I had with fans, I was sandwiched in between two couples of Colts fans, both actually from Indianapolis; behind me was some sort of office field trip, Patriots fan, Seahawks fan, Bengals fan, and a Jaguars fan; all these people were Americans. I had become curious with how people from the U.K. pick a team to root for, so I approached a man in a Matt Ryan jersey, and I asked him “Why do you like the Falcons if you’re from London?” He replied “I loved being Mike Vick in the old Madden Games.” I asked “How long has NFL Football been relevant to you?” He said “I don’t know, 10-15 years.” Which caught me off guard massively, but then again the NFL has been booming for decades. I finally approached an Eagles fan while I was in line for a “Carling” and some fish and chips, I asked him “Why do you support the Eagles?” He responded explaining, “As a Brit you just have to pick a team, I have some friends in Wilmington, Delaware, they root for the Eagles, so I just figured I would too.”
The game itself was entertaining until the final drive, Andrew Luck was receiving no help from his Offensive-Line and his Wide Receivers couldn’t hold onto the ball, both teams had a combined 18 penalties, and both teams were lackluster on third down. The Colts couldn’t get out of their own way, the Jaguars were able to take advantage of extremely sloppy football and hold onto a wide lead that the Colts essentially handed to them. The highlight of the game was an impressive 42 yard Allen Hurns touchdown catch in which he was seemingly untouchable. The Jags held on to a 3 point lead sending the London-based Jags fans home happy, but sending all the pure football fans home happy that they saw a good game.
In my opinion three games in the U.K. is likely the peak of the NFL’s success in London, bringing a franchise to London would be nearly impossible to navigate with the NFLPA, but also I’m not sure that the Jaguars could fill an 84,000 person stadium every week. Maybe they add a fourth or fifth game to be played in London, which I would be all for, because the fans were having fun, they loved the sport, and they were having a great time. The atmosphere is far different than that of a game in Philadelphia, Washington, or New York; but it’s still a valid and excited fan base, I highly recommend experiencing the NFL in London.