There are a lot of Cowboys fans walking out of the Wembley Park Underground station, but when they try screaming the catchphrase -- "HOW BOUT THEM COWBOYS?" -- it's a staccato, nasal-sounding thing; "Ah bat 'em Cow Boys, ‘en?!," as opposed to the usual twangy battering ram.
The accents are not unsettling; the amount of Robert Griffin III Washington jerseys locking arm in arm with ragged Aikman, Smith and Irvin Reebok jerseys is. There are a lot of Redskins fans here. Not Washington football team fans. Redskins fans.
This is (left to right) Martin, Chris, Michael and Mark, longtime friends who have to come to the Cowboys-Jaguars game from Bolton, a northwestern suburb of Manchester, about a three-and-a-half-hour train ride.
Chris is a Jets fan because he’s always liked an underdog.
Me: You picked well then.
Chris: Yeah, I’m fine if they’re shit. And they’re shit.
Michael picked the Cowboys because he grew up watching John Wayne movies.
Michael picked the Cowboys because he grew up watching John Wayne movies. Martin and Mark are "Washington supporters" because that was the dominant team they saw on TV growing up. There’s a strong generational gap of NFL fans in England. This is Group No. 1: men in their late 30s and early 40s who watched select games on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in the 1980s. Almost all of them cheer for Washington or the Dolphins because of Doug Williams and Dan Marino. The first Super Bowl to ever air live in the United Kingdom was XVII in 1983 (Washington 27, Miami 17), and the oldest piece of league history I hear mentioned the entire weekend are the names John Riggins and Don Shula.
Me: Are you guys friends?
Mark: We’re mates, yeah.
Me: So Dallas and Washington? You do know you’re supposed to hate each other, right?
Mark: Oi, we do! (laughter)
They don’t, at least not like how they’re supposed to by American standards. There’s no apparent loathing of a rival’s fan base and no self-loathing of your own team if they’re "shit."
After the game I see a group in 49ers jerseys on the Metropolitan line back into London. As the train briefly gains cell phone reception, Twitter tells me San Francisco has just defeated New Orleans in overtime, breaking a two-game losing streak. From across the train car I ask the Niners fans about the win, and they smile. The win is breaking news to them, but so is the fact they were playing New Orleans. This particular interaction is below the median NFL awareness level I encountered, but not by much.
I ask the Washington fans if they’re familiar with the name controversy back in the U.S.
Martin: Oh yeah. 'The Washington Natives' now.
Mark: I don’t think it matters. They’ll always be the ‘Skins.
No Washington apparel wearer I ask wants to change the name. The idea isn’t enraging the way it is for some lifelong fans in D.C.; it just doesn’t seem to compute, or even register concern. In a sea of 100,000 eager NFL fans at the third and final International Series game of 2014, no one talks about concussions or publicly financed stadiums or Roger Goodell’s oversight or whatever you, the lifelong American NFL fan, have a problem with. Fans wearing Saints jerseys don’t know what Bountygate is. Fans in Patriots jerseys have never heard of Spygate. Young, affluent consumers are gobbling merchandise, displaying no bias or bad behavior, offering no criticism of the league or sport and -- most importantly to the United Kingdom's hope for even more revenue -- cheerily attending NFL games regardless of the teams playing.
Not only has the NFL captured the consumer interest of the world’s second-largest English-speaking economy, the league has also managed to throw its problems overboard on the way across the Atlantic. Take a few steps back and Wembley Stadium's crowd is the living analogue of a perfect, cheery gameday crowd in an NFL-created NFL commercial for an NFL product. It's a corporate dream come true. It’s not until Saturday night, hours after and miles away from an NFL-controlled rally outside Wembley, am I asked in a pub in City of London about Ray Rice, by a man in a West Ham kit.
the league has managed to throw its problems overboard on the way across the Atlantic.
"How can you beat your wife in America and play a sport? How can you not be in prison?"
My drinking companion, a British tabloid writer, cuts the air with a story about a former coworker, a West Ham supporter who, years after his misbegotten youth as a "proper soccer hooligan," still receives a phone call every Friday afternoon from a Millwall supporter who politely asks how his family is, if he’s had a good week, and if he’d like to meet up to fistfight him and other Millwall fans this weekend. As the story goes, the Millwall fan asks every week if the coworker was free he’d give a time and place, gather some West Ham supporters, and they’d punch each other in the face in a public area until the police would show up, then make plans for the next time and wish each other well.
So when the NFL throws a rally in Trafalgar Square, as it did last month, or in the parking lot of Wembley Stadium (cordoned off the entire weekend since so very few Brits commute to a sporting event in a car), it's initially jarring to the British sensibility. This couldn't happen at the Wembley-hosted FA Cup, or any EPL match for that matter. Putting tens of thousands of soccer fans wearing conflicting colors in a fenced-off space of asphalt with alcohol for sale would be an instant Anglo "Thunderdome."
* * *
These kilted gentlemen are Euan Cartney, a Titans fan because it's the first team he ever saw play, and Graham Henderson, a Texans fan since his fiancee's family moved to the Houston area. Both are from Aberdeen, Scotland, and they plan on attending the Titans-Texans game at NRG Stadium in Houston on Nov. 30. Both started watching the NFL on Scotland's Channel 5 as kids and never stopped. Eventually they decided to pick teams. They had the kilts professionally made; leather with embroidered team logos, as well as the logos of each team they've seen play down the seam. They've been to all three games at Wembley this season.
Graham: People can't tailgate in the U.K. The police, the fans, it's just a foreign concept. You couldn't get soccer fans together, you get NFL fans together. It's a different mindset. It's almost tribal, soccer, but this is different. It's easier. You can feel comfortable repping your own team. That's why I love coming here. Every jersey's here. You couldn't do this with soccer. Far too much trouble, far too much riot police.
You couldn't do this with soccer. Far too much trouble, far too much riot police.
Instead, there are on-staff "hecklers" in neutral baby blue NFL jackets who greet fans walking to the stadium rally on Saturday and the game on Sunday.
It's a pair of young men, one of whom tells me he works for the Wasserman Media Group. Their job is to engage every single person walking into the event according to the team colors they're wearing -- and every single person is wearing some kind of NFL gear.
"Oi, Vikings fan then? Bet you can't stand Jay Cutler!"
"Ah, Patriots? 43-21! Big win against those Broncos last week!"
Behind them a man with a PA system announces the team affiliation of every single fan going through the turnstiles. He does this for hours, ID'ing vintage Tampa Bay creamsicle hats and other hard-to-name affiliations for the uninitiated. Only once in two days do I hear him screw up and use the name "Carolina Browns." There is no deference, celebration or bias given to a particular team, save for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the game's designated home team. When a young couple arrives arm in arm, one in Raiders gear and the other Niners, either no one on the welcoming staff gets the American irony, or they're instructed not to.
The madness in lifelong generational soccer allegiances is referenced almost as a burden. The NFL is fun, a clean slate. This is Group No. 2 -- the 30s and younger crowd weaned on Sky Sports' current NFL package, much more expansive, promoted and covered than in years past. Digital culture has increased their IQ. They're resentful of the NFL UK's initial early PR campaigns that spoon-fed the rules of the game and the positions on the field. They know stats, they manage fantasy teams, and they block off Sunday nights for the live 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. games. When they wake up on Monday and Tuesday and Friday mornings, they've either DVR'd the games and try to avoid spoilers until they get back from work or school that night, or have a Christmas morning moment with their fantasy rosters, or both.
The league is very mindful to not condescend to the U.K. media, at least not around the U.S. media. But a level up from the press area, in Wembley's posh luxury suites, each private box has a stack of league-issued "NFL 101" brown paper color booklets available. Inside is a "Sports Illustrated for Kids" explainer of the sport and the league. Hey Brits, what's a defensive end do? Here's a quote from Steelers DE Brett Keisel (probably):
"My job is pretty grimy. My main job is to keep the offense from advancing the football. Of course, as a defensive player, you want to hit and smash the man with the football. But you have to do so within your responsibilities."
Recent Super Bowl teams are wildly popular: New England, Green Bay and Denver especially. Black jerseys of any kind are popular. Tom, a 25-year-old from Essex dressed in an Eagles cap and Nick Foles jersey, tells me a story I hear repeated throughout Sunday afternoon: one year he got a copy of Madden (pronounced "madame" in England) for Christmas 2006 and picked a team at random for an exhibition game. When it landed on Philadelphia, he decided to be an Eagle for life.
The younger fans want to display allegiance to an existing franchise to validate their fandom, they just don't care how they attain it. If they like the color red, they might buy a Cardinals jersey. Or a Texans one. Or a Chiefs one.
Or a Falcons one: There is no self-loathing in U.K. NFL fandom. It's too young and too strong to infuse negativity into, to transform into a maudlin self-punishment. I know this because I tried to infuse it, spotting a teenager in a brand-new, bright red No. 98 Atlanta Falcons jersey overtop a hooded a sweatshirt which blocked the name plate. So far all I'd seen were the requisite Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones numbers. Surely a kid that young wouldn't have requested a Cliff Matthews jersey?
This is how I met Matt Welfare, a 16-year-old from Eye, Suffolk.
Me: Are you a Falcons fan? I'm a Falcons fan from America. Who's No. 98 on your jersey there?
Matt: It's 1998, that's the year I was born. I'm 16. Are you from Atlanta?
Me: I'm from Georgia, right outside of Atlanta, yes. Why are you a Falcons fan?
Matt: My uncle, when I was younger, he put all the teams in a hat and had me pull out one, and whatever I pulled out was my team for life. I pulled the Falcons.
Me: Holy shit, are you serious? You have a horrible uncle.
Matt: So I'm a Falcons fan for life.
Me: I'm so sorry. I really am sorry.
Matt: It's OK. My favorite player is probably Roddy. But once you pick your team, you pick your team!
Me: God bless your soul. Good for you. Where is your horrible uncle? Why did he do this?
Eventually his uncle arrived, wearing an Eli Manning Giants jersey, concerned that his nephew is talking to a stranger.
The Uncle: Right, so basically I didn't want to force him to become a Giants fan. The first game I watched in the 80s was a Giants-Cowboys game and I decided I couldn't pull for something called 'America's Team.' They lost the game I saw but won the Super Bowl that year. I've been a Giants fan ever since. So when he was ready I put all the names in a hat but before he picked, I pulled out all the rubbish teams ...
Me: NO. NO you didn't. You did this to him.
The Uncle: Two years ago they were good!
No one is interested in the more burdensome aspects of fandom here, most of all the NFL, which is enjoying an insane amount of revenue from merchandise. That's one thing that sticks out -- almost every single person in a crowd of 100,000 is wearing a new NFL jersey, except a portion of those that are very, very old and/or ragged looking. Not vintage -- no one has a $300 Lynn Swann Steelers jersey -- but old. Middle-age old. There are more proudly worn Jeff Garcia jerseys here than should be legally allowed. Freddie Mitchell. Terry Glenn.
According to third-party merchandise vendors located outside of official Wembley grounds, this is because demand for NFL merchandise has outstripped supply for years. Jason Proctor runs a stand between the Wembley Park tube station and the stadium for every NFL game. He says he could double his merch stand's size -- possibly triple it -- if he could get the supply he needs from the NFL. Proctor's been told each game provides about 3-4 million pounds in merchandise sales inside the stadium. Outside, his stand makes around 300,000 a game, but he says the profits could be four or five times that if the NFL would understand European demand for its goods.
"I'll go online to the distributor for the U.K. and ask for 200 of this hat, 200 of that shirt, for every team. Every team. Team doesn't matter. And instead of 200 I'll get 30. Or 12."
Proctor's stand is selling commemorative scarves -- the kinds you see at an EPL match -- for each of the six NFL teams playing in the U.K. this year, as well as game-specific matchup scarves. But they aren't the top seller -- the more American items are. That means Nike hats (20 pounds) of all different styles and editions; flat bill New Era types, broken-in caps, snapback, whatever.
Proctor plans on going to America this winter to buy up as much wholesale merchandise he can and store it for the 2015 games. He says there's no fear of eating the cost of supply and storage. He wants only officially licensed NFL merchandise because the U.K. fans love the quality, despite what he says is a tripled markup and slimmer margin. He buys a hat for 15 pounds and sells it for 20.
The idea, presented big and clumsy, is to sell the "American" experience of American football.
"We set up for the Premier League matches too. The difference is, there's 100,000 people in there today, and about 40 percent of the crowd is going to buy something at the game. English football is about 7 percent."
There is always music in the air, provided by a rotation of local rock bands, DJs and groups of competitive beatbox teams. The layout -- identical at Saturday's rally and Sunday's daylong tailgate -- is the standard American county fair. There are enormous beer tents, all operated by Budweiser and dressed in solid bright red. You can't buy a pint of Fuller's or anything bitter, but aluminum bottles of Bud Light scatter the lot. The idea, presented big and clumsy, is to sell the "American" experience of American football.
The food vendors are all English companies, but they're providing "American" food -- hot dogs, hamburgers, burritos ("American burritos!" one clerk yells to passersby) and, scariest of all, barbecue. Or at least a concept thereof. There are at least eight different stands to buy BBQ from, and all are frighteningly suspect to a native. Sampling one stand's most popular item, "pork and mac: a pile of pit barbeque on top of classic American mac 'n cheese!" is to experience a nullification of flavor by American standards. Dry, onion-laced pork on top of white elbow macaroni. Fans are lined up to drop 8 pounds apiece for the dish.
Also, a Hooters has appeared, just outside the official tailgating area. What looks to be a bar and/or events space normally called Metropolis is temporarily a Hooters before kickoff, complete with Hooters girls. There are no management types or event organizers to explain the mirage of one of America's bawdier football tropes, and when I ask one of the Hooters' girls, she declines to be quoted in what sounds like an Eastern European accent. After the game any traces of the Hooters will disappear into the English night.
* * *
There are a number of Jaguars jerseys in the crowd at kickoff. Yes, the Jags are the "home" team, and before and after kickoff about a quarter of fans inside Wembley Stadium steadily wave teal flags. When Denard Robinson hits a 32-yard wobbling, weaving touchdown run to give the Jags the briefest of leads in the first quarter, the crowd cheers with the same volume and enthusiasm as they do when the Cowboys recover a muffed punt. Dez Bryant's first of two touchdowns, especially his aggressive stiff arm, seems to draw a roar from the entire crowd, evidence that fans are more content to cheer for the best NFL action possible rather than a particular side. Bryant is better than any offensive player on the Jags' roster, and U.K. fans -- even those in Jacksonville gear -- seem to want the U.S. to know they know that.
This is no more a Jaguars home game than a Cowboys one, despite the huge number of Dallas fans in attendance, both native to Europe and some visitors from the States. If there's a "loser" in the NFL's expansion into London, it's the designated home team, which in many cases means Jacksonville. The entrances, banners and Jumbotrons try their hardest to tell fans this is a Jaguars home game, and that the Jaguars love England. That's pounded home mercilessly throughout the game. In between drives, messages from Jaguars cheerleaders and players like Cecil Shorts appear on the Jumbotron, with the same Pravda-like messaging and delivery:
"We look forward to coming back here next year."
"We’ve had a great time this week."
"We appreciate your support."
Over and over and over, to little reaction, save for when a new cheerleader appears. The U.K. has no comparison for an American football cheerleader. The largest assembled crowd at Saturday's rally is for the Cowboys' cheerleaders. When the Jags' cheerleaders show up at Sunday's pregame rally, they're booed by a chorus of Cowboys fans. PA announcers across the entire complex politely remind attendees that "this is a Jacksonville Jag-u-ars home game. The Jag-u-ars are the home team." When the Jacksonville cheerleaders are put on the 'tron, Bronx cheers and catcalls can be heard.
no one has any burning desire to see one single team, most likely Jacksonville, relocate to the United Kingdom.
The British crowd has little concern with creating an atmosphere biased to one side, just as no one -- not a single person I spoke with -- has any burning desire to see one single team, most likely Jacksonville, relocate to the United Kingdom to play eight home games a year as London's official team. The passion for the sport is real, but with that comes demand for a premium. One Tom Brady appearance minus the extra three or four home games a full-time Jags team would provide? That's the preference of every single fan I spoke with, each of whom has already aligned with an NFL team, most of which aren't the Jags.
Greg is a 27-year-old from Perth, Scotland, and a Jaguars fan.
"Why not the Jaguars? Everyone always asks me, 'why the Jaguars?' Well why not them?"
Greg actively roots for the Jags the way anyone in Duval might, except he doesn't want them in London permanently. He's afraid, as are many, many U.K. NFL fans, that supporting an eight-game schedule featuring the same possibly bad home team would erode ticket sales and ultimately fail. It's hard -- expensive and time-consuming -- for fans to travel to Wembley. For all the excitement and positivity on display from U.K. fans, they're all convinced that one bad game (read: non-sellout) could sink the entire project of London-NFL relations.
This potential "disaster" to U.K. NFL fans is often identified as Oct. 25, 2015, when the Jags host the Buffalo Bills. English fans are terrified that anything short of a sellout would cause the NFL to retract. That's unlikely -- Wembley Stadium's ownership, the Wembley National Stadium Limited (WNSL), is still trying to pay off a massive £757m mortgage that helped renovate the stadium in the early 2000s. There is no Premiership team in the stadium on Saturdays, as the venue houses the English national soccer team as well as the FA Cup, and is treated as national, neutral ground.
NFL games at Wembley are a great way to build revenue, but a franchise playing eight games plus two preseason contests annually would be even better. It's soccer debt that wants the Jaguars, not English NFL fans. The kilted Scots, both already locked in with their allegiances regardless of a London franchise, plan to make all the 2015 games.
Euan: "We're here if there's a game, but that's not a very good one now is it?"
The gratitude has grown according to plan, evolving into expectation, none of which involves a bad AFC South franchise and illogical "rivalries" with teams in Nashville and Indianapolis. There's a worry that the Bills-Jags game will be the damaging byproduct of the league's efforts in the U.K.: Fans are more invested, more knowledgeable and now more discerning. If the legitimacy of a real, regular season game and its accompanying star power is what's making the new International Series work where NFL Europe failed, will the league be smart enough to recognize that it can no longer offer up just any of its product to the U.K. market?
Tom, the Essex Eagles fan by way of a "Madden" algorithm, doesn't care.
"No, I'm not changing my team if the Jags come. Not ever. Don't care about the Jags, but I want to see the games."