NFL — a London love story
Why Wembley is the home of (American) football
You’d think it wouldn’t work.
Why would the capital of England, home of sarcasm and stiff upper lips, embrace a concept so showoff as the NFL?
But think about it.
Some of the ingredients that make the NFL so appealing are reflected in London’s unique makeup.
The melting pot
Where privilege and entitlement exist alongside hustle and hard work to create wealth — London or NFL?
Where race and background are sometimes seen as irrelevant to success, sometimes the only barrier to acceptance — London or NFL?
Where people from any country in the world can contribute and inspire others from those countries — London or NFL?
These common factors play a part in why London and the UK have gone mad for the NFL each time the circus has come to town.
More than football
American football isn’t football — at least not as we know it.
And that’s ok.
If we want tribal passion, drama and despair passed down by our parents, grandparents and hometowns — we’ll watch ‘soccer’.
But if we want an all-round entertainment experience pretty much unrivalled in UK sport — we welcome the NFL to London.
It’s a cliche but as an event, it really is bigger than just what happens between the two teams on the pitch.
If you’ve ever watched the Superbowl, you’ll have seen a hint of the ‘everything turned up to 11’ presence of the NFL brand.
At Wembley Stadium, over the last decade, tens of thousands of Brits have fallen in love with this most American of experiences.
Washington @ Cincinnati (London) 2016
I went last year to watch Washington Redskins take on the ‘home team’, Cincinnati Bengals.
Like many UK based fans of American Football, my previous experience of NFL viewing had been strictly screen based.
The chance to see a live game — not an exhibition, a genuinely competitive, regular season clash — was too good to miss.
Making our way to the stadium on the day, we arrived at an outer perimeter of fanzones, with games, merch stores and popup food & drink outlets.
The number of people enjoying it, despite the sulky weather, was impressive, with more mingling and less division than English football.
Makes sense, there are fewer die-hard fans of just one team here — and with only a few UK games a year, fans of any NFL team would’ve attended.
A valid match ticket meant admittance to the inner perimeter and the US tradition of the ‘Tailgate Party’.
This pre-game institution involves food, drink, music and atmosphere — and across the pond is traditionally enjoyed in the stadium parking lot.
We made our way inside to our seats to enjoy the pre-game entertainment — fireworks, cheerleaders, t-shirt cannons and anything else you can think of.
Once the teams appeared and the game started, it already felt like we’d enjoyed a big day out.
The action itself was frenetic — huge hits, lung busting runs, impossible passes thrown and caught.
And almost in a nod to the host nation, the match itself ended in a most un-American draw!
The result was less important than the occasion, as longtime team devotees, general NFL fans, sports enthusiasts and total newbies all joined in.
The end of the match wasn’t the end of the experience either, as the two hours (plus overtime) meant we exited the stadium as the US games begun.
Sunday night football is a time-honoured tradition and the action was available to enjoy in the fanzones with a beer.
Watching the American clashes as the Wembley arch lit the sky, knowing we’d just been a direct part of that NFL weekend was pretty satisfying.
Same time next season?
London has often embraced confident US visitors, from Brylcreemed GI’s during the blitz to Jimi Hendrix and Madonna.
But for every well-received celeb, there’s a David Blaine or Donald Trump who is welcomed less enthusiastically.
Which makes the love affair between London and the NFL even more remarkable.
Firstly, the players seem to genuinely enjoy visiting the UK and experiencing different weather, media and a less experienced (but enthusiastic) fanbase.
Secondly, for fans, the intriguing balance of ‘bigger, brasher’ with the novelty of a (technically) minority sport is a huge draw.
But it’s more than curiosity appeal — go and see one of these spectaculars and it won’t be your last.
The size, speed and power of NFL players — amplified by shoulder pads and helmets makes it seem like you’re watching two alien races battle.
Music, cheerleaders, frenetic coaches, fireworks, striped umpires, unhinged mascots — Wembley does well to contain it all.
The NFL circus is so unabashed, unapologetic and just so ‘un British’ — which is why we love it.
I’ll go again, for as many years as they keep coming back to light up London.