What's it Like Being a British NFL Fan?
The NFL is an increasingly mainstream sport in the UK. That transition has led to a more accessible sport, but it also has its drawbacks.
Photo by PA Images
This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
I started watching the NFL when I worked in a pub, back in the days when Channel 5 showed late-night American sports. I'd get home about the time it was starting, and would stick it on instead of watching the other miscellaneous rubbish on offer. I got hooked, and have spent the last 10 years or so staying up until stupid-o'clock several nights a week to watch the games.
Back then it felt like being part of a little club. When you watched the games, the coverage was more like entertainment than sports broadcasting. Mike Carlson and whoever his cohort was for the season, usually Nat Coombs, would take over a deserted news studio and spend their airtime having fun: chatting about the sport in general, reading out emails, telling stories, and making jokes. It created a unique atmosphere, like you were hanging out and watching the game with them. It drew me in, and no doubt did the same for countless others.
This was a time when, if you tried to talk to people about the sport, or had the nerve to want to watch it, you got funny looks for liking 'that American crap'. I remember asking to put the Thanksgiving games on at my local pub once and meeting fierce resistance, despite the fact the telly was only showing the Sky Sports News loop.
Now here we stand: three games a year at Wembley, talk of moving a franchise to the UK, and every game available in high definition. The times they have been a'changing.
It hasn't been an easy journey. The late-night games, for instance, have been famously hard to find broadcasters for. It's part of the odd path the NFL has followed in the UK: pushing the Wembley games as the league tries to raise its profile, while at the same time not having a TV deal for the late-night matches. The league would sell out Wembley but not seem to care that big games weren't on telly.
That isn't to say that the coverage is perfect now. Sky Sports boasts about its live triple-headers, yet everyone goes home before the last game and they just play the same irritating video packages on repeat during the breaks. It's sad, especially considering that it was excellent late-night broadcasting that first attracted so many to the sport.
On the whole, though, British NFL fans live in a golden age. Dare I say it, the game coverage here is better than back in America. I lived in the States for a few years, and can safely say that while we have far less original media coverage of the NFL, what we do get is spectacular.
The problem with American coverage, especially for us stoic Brits, is that it focusses on only two things: the views of an old boys club, and sap stories.
All of the American broadcasters have their five- or six-strong panels of famous former players and coaches, all of whom sit around espousing their views on whatever game will be coming up. Very little said is in-depth analysis or insight; it is mainly broad stroke statements, emotional reactions, and catchphrases. Obviously these are all hugely experienced, Super Bowl-winning players and coaches; they know what they're talking about and do their research before they go on air. There is plenty of in-depth analysis for fans who want it too, either on special shows or online. Still, all that is presented to the audience during the main broadcasts are emotionally-driven narratives and rolling highlights. To use some overly fancy words, it's too reliant on pathos and ethos without enough logos.
British coverage, however, has logos in droves.
American football is perhaps the most tactical sport in the world, and even the most modest of playbooks is the size of a telephone directory. Sky Sports do an excellent job in using their studio time to go over the X's and O's of the game. Much like how Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher do with their giant TV on Sky's Premier League football coverage, Neil Reynolds and Shaun Gayle do wonders deconstructing the game to offer insight and educate fans on what exactly is going on.
The BBC try to join in when they show games, but much like how Formula One commentary takes a dip to the basic during the British Grand Prix weekend, most of their coverage focuses on explaining to a new audience just what is happening. They do roll out the old Coombs/Carlson broadcasting duo, though, and manage to pull off a good tribute to the NFL's lighthearted early days on British TV.
One pitfall NFL broadcasting in the UK has nicely avoided is the cringeworthy coverage which can come from discussing a complex and alien sport. Anyone who has ever seen a football/soccer match covered in America will know what I mean; there's an awkward over-enthusiasm with a fistful of asinine comments thrown in for good measure. There have been a few insufferable Brits taking a stab at covering American football, of course. Sky viewers will remember the mind-numbing comments of Nick Halling as he was regularly the least cool kid at long-term anchor Kevin Cadle's party.
All in all the sport is presented well, especially for one relatively new to our sporting zeitgeist and which most people will never have played. It shows how far it's come; from a sport which got you dirty looks for following to having in-depth TV coverage, games which sell out Wembley, and a thriving grassroots scene. American football has moved from having a small, cult-like fan base to being on the cusp of the mainstream. Teething problems like not getting key games on telly seem to, hopefully, be a thing of the past.
Still, without meaning to sound like a sporting hipster, I miss the outsider aspect of it. In the early days there was something nice about feeling like you were part of a little, late-night gang, making terrible life choices regarding your sleep to stay up and watch the games.
When the last game on Channel 5 ended, the show stayed on air as Carlson and Coombs chatted about the highlights of their time broadcasting the NFL, those weird and memorable games which the audience experienced with them. It made me genuinely sad; the end of an era as late-night NFL coverage went the way of NHL, MLB, and NBA in being replaced by that Super Casino rubbish.
It marked the transition point as more games went to Sky Sports. There is better coverage than ever before, but at the same time it's changed what it is to be an NFL fan in the UK. As the sport moves to the mainstream here, so too does its fan base.
Right now, it feels to me like that transition is what being a British NFL fan is all about: losing your club of late-night warriors as the sport becomes more popular. It's the progress the sport needs to make, and I can't wait to go on that journey, but that doesn't mean I don't miss the old days.
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