The 2015 NFL International series is over, after three surprisingly good games. We were there for the Detroit Lions at the Kansas City Chiefs, and had reports from all of the games, so what was the experience like? Did the UK fans do the NFL proud? Will we see more games in coming years? Join us as we take a look
The Pre-Game Atmosphere.
The atmosphere in London for the Chiefs and the Lions game was electric prior to the game. NFL fans old and young were all out in force to celebrate the event. Though the event was taking place during the first weekend of November, the last of the 2015 games, and large parts of the UK experienced poor visibility due to fog, the weather around the stadium was excellent, bright and sunny and this really kept the mood high. Prior to the game, thousands of fans milled around outside the stadium, enjoying the various fan experiences laid on by the league and Wembley Stadium, tossing footballs, and generally embracing the experience. Though perhaps not the typical tailgating experience at the better stadiums in the USA, the fans ensured that the party kept going from early in the day, right up until the end of the game.
We heard similar experiences were had by fans at all three games, which is especially encouraging given that none of the games were what would typically be considered “marquee” events.
One thing that was immediately apparent, is that this event was primarily attended by NFL fans, rather than Detroit or Kansas City fans. While there were no shortage of NFL jerseys and other apparel on display, a tiny fraction of it was for either of the teams playing.
In reality, it was clear that the majority of the people in attendance were there for the experience, and perhaps the novelty, rather than to show their support for the teams playing.
While we did see several small enclaves of Chiefs and Lions fans in the Stub Hub reception area, almost without fail, these were either fans who had emigrated from the USA, and were now living in the UK, or else a surprisingly large number of die-hard fans who had flown to the UK specifically for the purpose. We met one couple who had arrived in London the day before the game, and were taking an overnight flight back to the USA to be at work on Monday morning.
Again, this was true across all three games, though according to several people I spoke to, who were at the game the Jacksonville Jaguars are beginning to amass a small following over here, and at that game, there was definitely visible solid support for the “home team” at their game.
What also became immediately apparent from brief conversations prior to the game, was that though fans had shelled out upwards of £50 per ticket, and many at least as much on jerseys or other merchandise, the fans were, in general, not as clued up on American Football as I would have assumed.
Many were sports fans in general, who would, seemingly, watch anything, while others watched the occasional game on BBC or Sky Sports, but weren’t the sort of fans that stayed up past midnight, week in, week out to watch live games.
This became particularly apparent…
Inside the Stadium.
Once we got inside, it became very apparent just how many fans were relative newcomers to the sport.
Early in the game, it was eerily quiet inside the stadium. Several huge plays early in the game were greeted by merely a smattering of applause. While the stadium certainly sounded loud on TV during the Lions opening drive, my brother and I were able to maintain a conversation without needing to raise our voices.
In our section—admittedly, up in the nosebleed seats behind the Chiefs End Zone, we also overheard some amazingly misinformed explanations of basic concepts like down and distance, and watched the complete confusion on the faces of those around us at the explanation certain—to my mind at least—simple and obvious penalties.
Though the fans were obliging, and made noise when the jumbotron told them to “get loud” on critical second and third down plays, it was clear that fans didn’t really understand why they were being asked to do this.
Those same fans making noise in the run-up to the play, would then cheer uncontrollably when it resulted in a completion. There was seemingly no understanding that the noise was to make it difficult for the quarterback and centre to hear the count.
Not that it mattered, there were virtually no procedural penalties, because the noise level rarely really got loud enough to cause any issues for either team.
Nowhere was this more obvious than on two spectacular Chiefs punts, both dropped inside the 10. In our entire side of the field, I think I saw 2 fans, other than ourselves, clapping or cheering the play at all. Most fans just looked on confused even by the concept of what a punt was.
As the game went on, fans began to get caught up in the atmosphere a little more, cheering at most of the right points, and generally drinking in the atmosphere, but without a doubt, education is an area the NFL is going to need to work on if it wants to bring a full time franchise to the UK.
But even after watching a full game, live and in person, many of the fans we met in the bars around the stadium, and on the train on the way home still had plenty of misconceptions and confusion.
None of this is to suggest that fans weren’t having fun—far from it, even in a blowout game, most fans remained until the end, far more than would have done if the Chiefs game had a similar scoreline in Kansas City.
Which brings us to…
Coming into the season, two of the three games looked like they had real potential to be significant matchups between real contenders. In reality, by the time the Chiefs and Lions played, neither team looked like they were going to live up to their preseason hype. Nonetheless, the slate of games certainly showed that the NFL take these games quite seriously, and continue to do so.
The only real dud on the slate, preseason looked to be the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills.
However, of the three London games, this was arguably the most exciting.
The Chiefs game was a blowout, great for Kansas City fans, but pretty dull—in the second half especially—for neutrals, and the Jets and Dolphins, while having its clear high points also dragged in places.
No matter what though, all three games have had something for fans to get excited about, and, especially the Jacksonville game, really had the potential to build on the fanbase here in the UK.
In upcoming years, the NFL has committed to at least three games for the 2016 season, and at least two in 2017. The league has committed to one game at Wembley until 2020, and another two games per season at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium between 2018 and 2027
Both of these factors mean the NFL isn’t going anywhere, any time soon.
However, the Tottenham deal is particularly interesting, in that the stadium will have a removable grass pitch—similar to the turf at the University of Phoenix Stadium—with artificial NFL regulation turf underneath.
This would be the ideal setup not for multiple international series games, but instead for a permanent team, allowing both NFL and Premier Leaguegames to be played on back-to-back weekends—or even on subsequent days—without worrying about damage to the turf.
Given the hefty investment that the league has made into the Tottenham Hotspur project already, it seems that the league are really gearing up for a permanent team in the UK sooner, rather than later.
This is a great thing for fans here in the UK, though what happens in the interim remains to be seen.