There is hardly anything more American in this world than the combination of wings, beer and football.
Most Sundays throughout the fall, millions of Americans like me crowd around our television sets around 1 p.m. EST and begin the three to eight-hour long odyssey of drama and intrigue, success and failure that occurs around the nation.
While I was gladly able to enjoy my fall afternoons binging “Red Zone” and watching my fantasy football team ascend to the highest peaks, my experience with this year’s NFL Playoffs was far different than anything I had previously encountered.
As a student in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, I was afforded the opportunity to spend my spring semester in London. As exciting as it is to travel the world and immerse myself in a culture vastly different from that of Southern California, I have still sought out ways to remain in touch with the beautiful sport of (American) football. The results have been nothing short of eye-opening.
Since the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins in a sleepy 13-10 game on a particularly rainy day at London’s Wembley Stadium in October 2007, the NFL has not just retained but expanded on a particular interest in bringing the sport and the NFL brand to audiences in the U.K.
What this interest traces back to is often not exactly clear: Was it the high production quality of the game? The 81,000-plus screaming Europeans at Wembley? The 131-yard output from Giants running back and future Super Bowl champion Brandon Jacobs? Whatever it was, the League and Brits alike were intrigued by what they saw on that October afternoon. In the decade since, the NFL International Series has only grown in size, frequency and popularity.
Featuring pre-game acts from the likes of Calvin Harris, Train and Ne-Yo, the series has scheduled at least one game in London every year since 2007, growing to as many as four games in 2016, with another four slated for 2019. By the end of next season, the Green Bay Packers will be the only team that hasn’t kicked off on the Queen’s turf, as the league has sought to not only showcase the game and league as a whole but also ensure that all franchises are given the opportunity to present themselves abroad.
In recent years, the rhetoric coming from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggests that there is not only an interest in putting a football franchise in London, but that it is one of the league’s top priorities.
As an American, I was initially rather skeptical of this seemingly unnecessary song and dance put on by the league. Not only did the International Series come off as, at best, a cheesy exhibition akin to the MLB opening seasons in Japan, it even struck me as an incredibly destructive force in a team’s schedule that often knocked two teams outside of playoff contention further off course. As a massive fan of the Baltimore Ravens, I was not happy when they were chosen to play in September 2017. After waking up at 6 a.m. PST for kickoff, I was even more upset when they lost 44-7, the largest margin of defeat in the franchise’s history.
Coming across the pond, I was truly expecting the worst. I assumed people would be completely incapable of understanding the game’s rules. As it turned out, I was wrong.
For the Ravens wild-card round playoff game against the Chargers, I decided to head to what was labeled as an “NFL” pub and found 30 people decked out in purple and blue jerseys. While the crowd certainly included a few Americans, I had the opportunity to talk to locals and understand how their fandom developed. In a lot of ways, the stories they shared weren’t all too different from mine.
As a Florida native, my love for the Ravens came first from family but second from watching the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed terrorize offenses on Sundays. The Londoners I met shared a similar story in which they were drawn to the familiarity of team sports like soccer or rugby but fell in love with the personalities and generational talents of American football.
Even walking around the city, it is obvious that the NFL has made a lasting impact on British sports fans. Whether it be the Jaguars, Seahawks, Eagles or even the lowly Buccaneers, locals have shown a serious interest in the sport.
The most impressive aspect of British sports culture is the passion its fans have for teams and cities that are located thousands of miles away. Whether it’s rooted in their historical interest in soccer or attraction to the fast-paced, high-impact game of football, fans of all teams hark back to one unifying concept of fandom: loyalty. Through thick and thin (and fans of the six-time London host Jacksonville Jaguars have seen a lot of the latter over the past year), these fans remain absolute in their devotion to a single team.
Whether the NFL will find success in officially planting its flag in the British capital remains to be seen. The money, travel logistics and television rights certainly make it a more difficult venture than most. But if anything is certain, it’s that the fans in this city are ready for professional football.
And sometime in the not-so-distant future, wings, beer and football may not be strictly American.
Jimmy Goodman is a junior writing about current events in sports. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.