Recently I have been questioned as to why I follow American Football, and in particular what drew me into being a Carolina Panthers fan. Quite simply I love the NFL for all the same reasons any avid follower of the sport will. It’s brutality in the tackles. It’s speed. The athleticism of the players. The technique required to provide the endless entertainment. In short, much of the same reasons the British public follow ‘soccer’.
When you ask the non believers if they have ever watched a game, and witnessed the unrivalled drama of a quarterback trying to force a game winning drive, facing a third down with 40 seconds, one time out, and 65 yards to cover, alls they hear is time out. They will then proceed to whine and moan about the stop-start nature of the game, and how lazy the players are for stopping every 10 seconds. Seriously, try it. It’s actually quite amusing.
The simple fact of the matter however, is that the NFL is surging in popularity in the United Kingdom (amongst other countries). There’s even a real possibility of London having it’s own franchise in the not so distant future. This is, in part, down to the International Series games held annually at Wembley Stadium. In 2007, after the conclusion of NFL Europe, the NFL held it’s first ever game outside of North America. The Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley, with the Giants running out 13-10 winners. 81,176 people were in attendance that day. The first 40,000 tickets sold out in 90 minutes. Since then more than half a million, 579,493 to be precise, fans have been in attendance to watch the NFL in London. Spanned over 7 games this gives the games an average attendance of 82,785. In 2013 that average could be beaten by only the Dallas Cowboys. Admittedly Wembley does have a higher capacity than many of the NFL stadiums, which helps.
Last season, due to the rising popularity and ticket sales, the NFL commissioned two regular season games to be played in the UK. Due to further increased popularity, 2014 will see 3 games played on UK soil. The Detroit Lions game against Atlanta Falcons will even be played at prime time for UK viewers, which will see it be the earliest kick off time in NFL history in the States, 9:30am ET. In total 13 different NFL teams have played a regular season game in London. After this upcoming season that number will be 17, more than half of the league.
I managed to speak to current Carolina Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn about his experience at Wembley. He came over the England to play in the first ever International Series game as a member of the New York Giants. When asked about the experience he said it was a great atmosphere and a great experience. His only problem was the field, which wasn’t fit for football due to the rain – Welcome to England, the land of miserable weather.
Even if you can’t make it to Wembley to watch the game live, the NFL is available at your fingertips. Gone are the days of one match a week being broadcast on Channel 4 or 5. It’s presence was felt more than ever last season when 5 games were televised on a weekly basis in the UK. Sky Sports had a Thursday Night game and a double header each Sunday. Channel 4 took Sunday night football, with Eurosport showing Monday night football. Never before has the UK seen such levels of live NFL available to them. Workplaces probably saw a huge boost in bleary eyed employees each Monday, myself included.
If watching five weekly games wasn’t enough, you could get your fill of NFL from twitter. Each team has at least one UK fan base discussing their teams fortunes and misfortunes on a daily basis. The vast knowledge base amongst the British fans has surprised some Americans, including CFL coach and Sky Sports analyst, Jeff Reinebold who regularly partakes in Q&A sessions on twitter. A number of UK based podcasts have sprung up too, discussing the NFL on a weekly/twice weekly basis. Sky Sports ‘Inside the Huddle’ with Neil Reynolds and the aforementioned Jeff Reinebold is the ‘professional’ one. Yet Overtime Ireland (@OvertimeIreland) get great guests on each week and do a marvellous job without the might of Sky Sports supporting them.
The influence of the NFL is being seen all over the place in the UK now. Shops are beginning to stock caps, T-shirts, and jerseys of teams. An influx of online sites selling merchandise has seen more and more people showing their colours on the streets. Just last week I was offered a discounted meal at a restaurant by a man in an Atlanta Falcons cap. As a Panthers fan I kindly refused.
The British are not just content with watching American Football, but are beginning to play it also. The British American Football Association (BAFA) has announced recently that this year saw record participation levels. With over 4000 members representing over 70 universities across 3 divisions. Even the NFL is seeing some British players enter the ranks. Menelik Watson, from Manchester, was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders in 2013. British Olympic discus thrower Lawrence Okoye was signed by San Francisco 49ers the same year. If I’m not mistaken even the Panthers very own Graham Gano was born in Scotland before moving to the States.
It’s easy to see why more people in the UK are becoming obsessed with the NFL. But why the Panthers? A new franchise, established in 1995, they have never played in the UK, have no Super Bowl wins, and get relatively little media attention – even when successful. My story is quite boring. I’ve followed the NFL for around 10 years now and for a long time had no ties to any team. I just enjoyed the physicality and the show. It was only 2011 when I decided I wanted to have my own team. I’d seen a little of Cam Newton in the limited college footage we get in the UK and loved his style. He was fresh and exciting. Once the Panthers drafted him I made a choice to keep an eye on them and him in particular. It would have been easy for me to choose a team like the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, or the New England Patriots, who have big support word wide such is the size of their franchise. I chose an underdog instead, in true British style. Since then I have never looked back, I’m a part of Panther Nation now and I often find myself thinking “what took me so long?”.
As a keen user of social media, in particular twitter, I set out to find out the reasoning behind other peoples NFL choices. I first approached a close friend of mine. In his youth he travelled the world including multiple trips to the USA. In 1994 he found himself with a ticket to watch the New York Giants play the Broncos at Giants Stadium. Ever since he has followed the Giants. Also in the states the opportunity arose for him to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play in their spectacular ‘Horseshoe’ stadium. To this day he assures me it remains one of the greatest atmospheres he has experienced.
Both Andy Campbell (@A_Campbell_UK) and Kyle Robins (@AhhYeahKyleYeah) had similar stories. Both fell in love with the Panthers after the Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots in 2004. Andy was a big lover of the underdog story and Kyle said that Peppers and Smith sold him immediately with their superb performances. Kyle was 13 at the time and also loved the Panthers uniforms. Due to his age he wasn’t allowed to stay up for the Super Bowl, so he recorded it (on VHS no less) to watch the following day.
Mike Haworth (@magic_bobcat) was also drawn in by Julius Peppers. His parents moved to Greensboro, NC and he watched the Panthers play the Broncos circa 2008 when Peppers was dominant in the Carolina defense.
Kevin Patton (@Kev_mfc91) was on holiday in the States in 1995, he heard that there was a new franchise being set up in Carolina. He has been an avid fan from day one of the Panthers franchise.
Dave Collins (@DaveYNG) has a particularly interesting story as to how he became a Panthers fan. He’s been a fan since 1996 when, as a 10 year old, he saw a Carolina Panthers jersey with the name Collins on the back. Obviously with that being his name too he became hooked. Followed them closely ever since.
17 year old Ollie Field (@ofield_nc1996) was born to British parents in North Carolina. After moving back to the UK at 18 months old he has shunned the traditional British soccer fandom to follow his birth club the Panthers.
@MrStezza was looking to follow an NFL team after him American room mate (Steelers fan) got him into watching the sport. With no previous ties he, like me, was enticed by Cam Newton. After witnessing his rookie season for the Panthers he saw how exciting the franchise was and is now an active supporter.
Steve Paine’s (@Steve_Paine11) parents moved to the Carolinas 10 years ago. He immediately fell in love with the place, the people, and obviously the football team.
Last but certainly not least I heard from Abbie Lewis (@abbielewis2) who grew up in Charlotte but now lives in Atlanta. She has also been a fan from day one. She was even at the announcement party when Carolina got the franchise.
We all have our different reasons for loving NFL and our teams, be it the Panthers or any of the other 31 sides. Many reasons are similar, many are unique yet the one thing we all share is a love for the NFL. The vast Atlantic Ocean isn’t wide enough to stop the support growing in the UK. Each year the levels of support increase at an alarming rate. While there is a long way to go before American Football is recognised as a popular sport in the UK, trends currently show it’s going the right way about getting there.
You can find more work by Dan Rawly at http://thesportsbreakfast.co.uk/