I am a cynical British person, who therefore does not ‘get’ the NFL. I’ve seen Any Given Sunday, and I enjoyed Beyonce’s Super Bowl half time show a few years back. I think I played a Madden game once. That’s about it. I have nothing against in general, it’s just another thing I’d never gotten into.
However, the NFL is steadily making in-roads into the UK. There’s now four games a season played in London, and rumours continue to swirl of a team making the capital their permanent home. I was kindly given a pair of tickets to the final London game of 2017, between the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings. Would experiencing the NFL live, in all its glory, be enough to convert me? I tried to dampen my natural level of bitter cynicism, and go in with an open mind. This is what I discovered.
1: NFL fans go all in.
Getting the train from Vauxhall on Sunday morning, it was clear how big a deal the London games were to Europe’s NFL contingent. There were accents from all over the country, and further abroad. Plenty of Americans. Lots of Europeans as well, who I presume made the trip as London is the closest game to them. At Barnes, a group of Vikings fans speaking a Germanic language got on, complete with impressive beards and horned helmets. I hoped they might be real genuine Nordic Vikings, but since both the beards and helmets were knitted out of wool, I don’t think they were.
When I got to Twickenham Station, the vibe was definitely similar going to a football match. Half-and-half-scarf vendors draping their wares on street corners. Stewards doing their best to funnel the crowds the right way. The fans were noticeably different though. Extravagant consumes, and full families in matching coloured outfits. My favourite was a Vikings fan in sharp all-purple suit, purple glasses and a gold suit. Dude looked like a Prince tribute act you’d see at a Slovakian ski lodge.
2: It’s all about the pre-game activities.
We got there three hours before kick-off, because I wanted to get there good and early for the real main event: the tailgating. As is best my grasp of the situation, in America I don’t think they have the concept of going for a pint before the game. That’s because they have to drive several hours to a giant stadium, to park alongside thousands of other cars – so they get there early, set up a grill out the back of their truck or whatever, and have a cook-out. To be honest, I was hoping on a grey British approximation of this – a disposable barbecue on the roof of a Ford Fiesta with a couple of warm tinnies.
The Twickenham tailgate was actually a lot of NFL-based activities designed to ingrain the sport to new fans (plus plenty of opportunities to purchase merchandise and refreshments). At first, I was pretty gutted. But I’m not gonna lie – it was genuinely a lot of fun. Kids ran around getting photos with mascots, middle age dudes embarrassed themselves on inflatable end zones, and people ate hotdogs the size of their face. Cheerleaders performed on stage. The Americans know how to make these things a full-day, fun-for-all-the-family type event. You just have to embrace it.
3: Colours of virtually every NFL side were on show.
If you went to a Premier League game between, say, Spurs and Everton, you would not see any Chelsea shirts (or at least, I bloody hope not). I get that this is a special occasion, that European fans get a limited chances each year to see any live NFL, let alone their team, but still, seeing Green Bay Packers in their cheese head hats was odd. I ended up buying a New York Giants scarf – I had no prior team affiliations, but the writing Giants scarf looked most like an early 90s Sega game box, so I went with that. Giants 4 Life, yo.
4: It’s more like cricket than football.
Yeah, but what about the actual, y’know, match? I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it, despite initially not knowing the intricacies of the rules. The British ‘Yer Da’ take on American football is that it’s rugby for wimps and they keep stopping for ad breaks all the time. That’s obviously a reductive take, but watching the NFL live made me realise how that’s fundamentally misguided that approach is to the sport. Despite taking place on a similar pitch to rugby or football, it is honestly more like a one-day cricket test than a free-moving game. The pauses are the game. Just like in cricket, they are what create the tension, and dictate the pace and rhythm of the game. Each down is like an over. It’s more an all-day vide building to crescendos of action. You kick back, eat and drink, and get excited at the appropriate moments.
I’d been instructed to support the Browns, since they’re were the underdogs. ‘Underdogs’ was a bit of an understatement tbh – they’d lost every game so far this season, and probably are tapping up Sam Allardyce as we speak. Yet miraculously, the Browns got a touchdown early, putting the Vikings on the backfoot and making it an exciting game. Eventually, the Browns lack of quality showed through, and the Vikings trounced them in the final quarter, but by all accounts it was the best match of this year’s London Games.
5: Expect to hear a lot of hip-hop.
To keep the energy up, a strange but very American combination of modern hip-hop (Future, Migos and Rae Sremmund) and 80s rock (Metallica and Guns N Roses) blasted between every down (they should totally do this between overs at Lords). Wrestling-style promo vids for the Browns players played on the screen. The Cleveland drumline performed. The ‘Party Patrol’ also made multiple experiences – these were a crew of guys on spring stilts doing flips and stuff, and girls firing t-shirt guns into the crowd. Ever since the death of Maude Flanders I’ve been nervous around t-shirt guns, but thankfully it pasted without incident.
6: Most importantly, just embrace it.
I do think I lucked out and went to a particularly exciting game – that’s the risk with any sport, you could end up seeing a thriller, and the dullest 0-0 of all time. However, what I really enjoyed was the overall experience. The NFL is loud, brash, and very, very American – and if you embrace that, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a day out, and it’s an experience.