Some Britons Are Learning To Love Football — The American Kind
Photo by Tim Ireland/AP
Daniel Brewer arrived in London on Sunday morning wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars onesie and face paint, complete with black whiskers, brown spots and a blue nose. He had come with fellow fans from the English city of Reading to cheer on the Jags as they took on the Indianapolis Colts beneath sunny skies at Wembley Stadium.
"None of us naturally are Jags fans," Brewer confided. "We all have our own roots, but because they signed a contract, they've got our hearts."
The Jags have signed to play one game in London each season through 2020, making them the closest thing to a hometown team here. They're the only U.S. team to make a multiyear commitment, according to the NFL.
Like most of the nearly 84,000 spectators who turned out for Sunday's game, which Jacksonville won 30-27, Brewer's favorite NFL team wasn't on the field. Brewer first got interested in American football through a woman he met at college from Baltimore.
"So I'm a Ravens fan," he said.
As the National Football League enters its 10th season staging games in London, the events have proven wildly popular, routinely selling out and drawing fans from across Europe. Brewer and many other fans here say they want more games — or even their own team.
Unlike football fans in a U.S. NFL city, though, those here divide their loyalties among the league's 32 teams. Ride the tube — London's subway — on game day and you'll spot a jersey from every NFL team in a matter of minutes.
For instance, Brian Moody-Smith, a 50-year-old carpenter from Kent, was wearing No. 44 from the Washington Redskins, a number made famous by John Riggins. Moody-Smith watched Riggins, a freight train of a running back, on British TV in the early 1980s, when he led his team to victory in Super Bowl XVII with a 43-yard touchdown run.
More than three decades later, Moody-Smith is still awestruck. "He was the man," he said.
Adrian Schlauri flew in from Zurich for Sunday's game. As he stood in line with about 1,000 other people to buy merchandise, Schlauri explained why he was wearing a vintage Philadelphia Eagles jersey with No. 92, which is associated with Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.
"I'm an Eagles fan for about 12 years," said Schlauri — half his life. "Reggie White is one of the best players we had."
Schlauri got interested in the game because his father, Guido, also here with him on Sunday, played offensive tackle for an amateur American football team in Switzerland.
Many European fans say they are drawn to U.S. football because of the game's complex strategy, its exciting, big plays and the NFL's pageantry. Joe Luxford, wearing a Minnesota Vikings jersey, said he enjoys the outsize personalities and showmanship of the American players, such as retired Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, known for his elaborate end zone celebrations.
"It's sort of like a theater-type performance," said Luxford, an IT recruiting consultant attending Sunday's game with childhood friends. "I know some English who don't like that in Americans in general. But us lot, we like that."
Given the NFL's passionate following here, people like Jordan Mead, a restaurant manager, believe basing a team in London is a no-brainer.
"I think within the next five years, there's got to be a franchise," said Mead, wearing a Jags jersey with his name on the back.
But Nick Deaker, who drives a forklift and backs the Carolina Panthers, thinks fans here are too divided to make a local franchise work.
"I can't see everybody changing their allegiance," he said. "They might come down for the first couple of seasons just to test the water, but after that, I can't see it lasting very long."
The NFL will play three games in London this season and add a fourth to the series in 2018. Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL International in London, says the league needs to look abroad for future growth.
But there are big logistical questions. For instance, would distance from the U.S. pose a competitive disadvantage for a team based in London, because of the travel time?
Kirkwood says the league has a lot of work ahead before it would consider expanding to London. He says the NFL needs to double its fan base here and make sure that a new team would strengthen the league as a whole — and that it would be sustainable for a generation or two of fans.
"If you were to do it," said Kirkwood, "you'd want to do it with a guarantee of absolute success."