Photos by Thomas Hjelm
In 2007, the Miami Dolphins played the New York Giants in the first regular season NFL game to be hosted at Wembley Stadium. From what I remember, the contest was a dud: miserable weather and two mediocre teams who could barely move down the field. The next week, when England lost to Croatia in soccer (ending the team's chance to qualify for Euro 2008), Mark Lawrenson pinned the defeat on the NFL, claiming the players had churned the hallowed turf into an unplayable mess.
As convincing an argument as that was, it didn’t deter us from inviting the NFL back; the international series has been held at Wembley every year since. Some games have been good, some have been bad, and most, regrettably, have been hosted by Colin Murray. Three games will be played this season, the first of which took place yesterday, with the Miami Dolphins beating the Oakland Raiders 38–14.
To try convincing Brits they should care about a sport that—to an outsider, at least—seems to revolve around timeouts and advertising, this Saturday the NFL hosted a "fan rally" on Regent Street. With the faint hope there'd be free Coors Lite and giveaways of the kind of food that gives you renal failure, I went along to see what sort of Brit likes American football.
The NFL was actually pretty big over here during the late 80s and early 90s. Its popularity was fueled by extensive coverage on Channel 4, and the capital even had its own professional team. The now defunct London Monarchs played in the now defunct NFL Europe, and their games would often attract 40,000 fans to the now-defunct old Wembley Stadium. Eager to dress up like sentient wardrobes and clatter into other men, these fans started amateur teams all over the country.
I’ve been into the sport for the best part of a decade, and a few veterans I’ve played with—guys who tend to look like battered fire hydrants—told me a team called the London Ravens once had 100 hopefuls show up to an open tryout. (The Ravens are also now defunct.)
Turning up at the Regent Street event, you’d never guess the UK had such a rich history with the game. There didn't seem to be too many genuine fans in attendance whatsoever. In fact, it mostly looked as if passing tourists had just picked up an old jersey from the nearby Lillywhites and ventured in after realizing Piccadilly Circus doesn't really offer all that much besides Union Jack–branded gear.
These guys were the first people I came across who seemed to have any sort of allegiance, with both of them representing their amateur team, the Durham County Presidents. Being the old guard of the British amateur game, they were keen to regale me with stories about the glory days.
"In the 80s, it was bigger," said Mark, the guy on the right. "I remember when I was young, seeing it on Channel 4. Dan Marino. Miami Dolphins. That was it. I've been playing ever since."
I thought this duo was pretty typical of the British fan, and their assertion that the UK game attracts "every shape, size, color, and creed" is something I can attest to. It’s one of the true benefits of a contact sport with no links to private education.
Despite the enthusiasm, the fan rally was quickly beginning to take its toll. It takes a special kind of event to make a street best known for midnight iPad launches seem any more like the apex of commercialism, but it looked like the NFL street party could be the thing to do it. Regent Street resembled manufactured fandom repackaged as a children's party. People lined up to get their faces painted, there was an inflatable something-or-other at every turn, and it probably wouldn't have seemed too out of place if the cheerleaders had started making balloon animals.
In short, it satisfied every hackneyed joke a high-school student could make about corporate America, and, as a fan of the game, that was kind of a bummer.
I asked the Durham County guys about the NFL’s interest in helping the grassroots game grow, and they all seemed to suggest the league couldn’t really care less. Surrounded by breakdancers and bouncy castles—all soundtracked by the kind of prog rock only fictional dads in bad TV comedies listen to—I couldn't help but agree.
Trying to up my positive mental attitude, I went looking for more fans and soon came across this guy, Boris from Switzerland. The game is (comparatively) huge there and I’ve heard some players even get paid.
"You need passion for this game because it’s not very famous, so you really have to get into it," said Boris, before he got into a wrestling match with his teammate, leaving me no other option but to move on.
As it looked like he’d spent more time on his outfit than your average bride, it was obvious this guy was American. Captain Jack had traveled from the States with his accomplice, "Raider Pimp" Ben. It was hard to get a decent shot of either, as passing Spanish school groups kept latching onto them for photos.
In a brief spare moment, they told me about their love for the Raiders. "We’re there every game at five o’clock in the morning, getting ready to barbecue for the tailgate," said Ben.
Hearing about that game-day tradition made me acutely aware of my surroundings. He we were, on a muggy Saturday, standing in the middle of the West End while Ben, a fake sex trafficker, talked about early-morning barbecues in the Bay Area. Tailgating, as crucial to American football as shoulder pads and concussions, seemed like a depressingly unattainable fantasy standing between Natwest and a branch of Accessorize.
I soon stumbled upon these girls near Oxford Circus. Were they the latest group to emigrate to the dark pit of Raider Nation? Is this a new breed of British American football fan? Or were they all just really into SpaceGhostPurrp and that whole Raider Klan thing he's got going? Unfortunately, it was none of those things: they were merely employed by a promo company for the day.
All five were very friendly and clearly doing their best at what they were to do, but I did feel like warning them they probably weren't going to have a lot of luck. I don't want to insult my fellow British hand-egg players, but it's not a sport you get into to look cool. Socially, playing American football in the UK is akin to extensively quoting The God Delusion on a first date. In the past, I’ve felt my football helmet was basically a metal fedora.
When I asked the girls what they thought of the crowd at the fan rally, I think one was being kind when she said there were some "interesting characters" in attendance.
These guys wanted a plug for their team. If the NFL won’t help them out, I will. Shouts to the London Hornets.
As the day passed the proceedings continued to lack any real identity. The NFL has billed this as a "home" game for the Raiders, but the only indication of any Oakland advantage was a few more silver and black T-shirts dotted throughout the street.
Resigning myself to the fact my favorite sport will likely forever be a novelty in the UK, I made my way down Regent Street, past the Sports Lobster—whatever the fuck that is—and headed for home. But on the way out, I noticed some guys handing out fliers.
The trio were recruiting for the London Warriors junior team. For those familiar with the British league, they need little introduction. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, their senior squad is the British American Football equivalent of Man City, only without the financial backing of a billionaire and anywhere near the same amount of fans, media coverage, or international merchandising revenue.
Raymond, Reece, and Mohammed explained why they don't care about any of that: "When we’re training, we see the senior team together, like a family. That builds us up."
The results speak for themselves. Two weeks ago the senior Warriors team won the BritBowl (the British equivalent of the Super Bowl) for the second season in a row, and their success can probably be linked to their "academy"-style setup. "The coaching at the younger age means we play at a higher level. You have to be willing to put your work in."
Obviously that work ethic doesn’t end at the sidelines. I can’t think of many other sports where teenagers would give up their Saturday to recruit players to their team, but the desire to raise American football from beyond the fringes makes some youngsters go beyond the call of duty. When I was their age, I spent my Saturdays playing Madden and teaching myself how to roll spliffs. It’s little wonder my junior team was so shit.
Hopefully this same level of dedication will stretch to other amateur clubs. While I spoke to a lot of people who'd played the game, most were just fans. They either got into the NFL through friends, television or video games. A lot of them were older and few believed it would ever reach the lofty heights of our traditional national pastimes, like football, rugby and televised darts.
But we can still dream; perhaps things might be different if more British NFL fans finally get around to suiting up themselves.