A British Soccer Fan on the Unique Appeal of the NFL

Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders hit Regent Street for the NFL game between the Vikings and the Steelers at Wembley on Sunday (September 29). (Photo: Press Association via AP Images)

Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders hit Regent Street for the NFL game between the Vikings and the Steelers at Wembley on Sunday (September 29). (Photo: Press Association via AP Images)

As an avid fanatic of what other British expatriates are quick to call “real football,” I have grown more and more intrigued by that other sport of the same name (or, as we Brits like to call it, American football).

Actually, in recent years, some Brits have become more than just “intrigued,” with an estimated 185,000 people actively watching games from back home. Moreover, since 2007 — as part of the NFL’s International Series — games (rather than matches) between some of the U.S.’s leading franchises (rather than clubs), have been played at Wembley Stadium to much fanfare.

Indeed, this weekend (Sunday, September 29), Wembley will play host to a showdown between six-time Super Bowl champions the Pittsburgh Steelers and four-time losers the Minnesota Vikings, while the Jacksonville Jaguars take on San Francisco 49ers a month later.

If the sport is to ever gain success in the U.K., one thing it certainly has on its side is that, as an offshoot of rugby, it technically originated in England. Of course, precisely because of its apparent similarities to rugger, the odds of it ever catching on as a mainstream sport would appear slim.

However, in all-but-one of the six London games since 2007, the Wembley crowd has exceeded 80,000 spectators, with further audiences enjoying the games on BBC1 and Sky. Meanwhile, Jerseys bearing names such as Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow and Tom Brady are available on general sale in the U.K., while further names are sold during the annual Wembley event.

But while some aspects of the sport are appealing to Brits, game-day traditions such as tailgate parties can seem a little out there for newly transplanted expats. For the uninitiated, a tailgate party is when football fans grill a lot of food and consume alcoholic beverages from the back of a truck (as in a pickup truck, not a lorry) on the day of a game.

And then there’s the game itself, which boasts an American fan-base almost as ardent as that of British soccer teams. In fact, British expats can often feel a little left out amid all the NFL parties and the “dress-in-your-team’s-jersey” workdays.

On the pitch (or should I say field?), an NFL team can include 46 players in its game-day roster, compared to the 18-man match-day squads of the Premier League. And if soccer is referred to as a game of two halves, American football is a game of four quarters. The game is more stop-start than soccer, its rules often confusing to fans of the latter. In fact, after living in Indiana — home of the Indianapolis Colts — for almost five years, I’m still not sure I fully grasp phrases such “eligible receiver” or “illegal substitution.”

That said, I have come to understand the positive influence NFL can have on American communities (much in the same way that soccer has around the globe). As a matter of fact, to this day I continue to enjoy the lasting economic and infrastructural effects of living in a Super Bowl city, almost two years after Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI.

Ironically, one of those effects was that the city was able to recently attract two of the world’s biggest soccer teams — Chelsea and Inter Milan — an encounter that represented my first experience of the city’s Lucas Oil Stadium. If Indianapolis wins its bid to host the Super Bowl in 2018, perhaps my second visit will represent my first live NFL game.

Hopefully by then I’ll be clear on the rules.

Are there any British fans of American football willing to admit it? Show yourselves below:

See more:
Five Ways to Catch Premier League Football in the United States
How to Enjoy the Super Bowl When You Know Nothing About the NFL
10 Signs That You’ll Never Move Back to Britain

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Laurence Brown

Laurence Brown is a British freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs a blog called Lost In The Pond, which charts the many cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.
View all posts by Laurence Brown.
  • Courtney

    I didn’t know the NFL went to Wembley sometimes!

    I did a similar post on my blog, but from the American perspective, all about ‘real football’. In case anyone is interested:


  • Jude

    I hope American football never gets popular in the UK. But I wouldn’t mind seeing baseball catch on more internationally :-)

  • maggie

    prefer to watch rugby

  • gn

    Can’t say I’m a big fan of American football. I’ll watch the highlights, but live I prefer sports with more continuous action and fewer interruptions. I’ve recently become interested in Aussie rules, which seems to combine some of the better elements of the different codes of football.

    • Bennett Seacrist

      Aussie Rules is great. We have a number of clubs here in the US that play it but I’d love to see it become even bigger here.

  • AdamR_MobileAL

    The NFL needs to be more sure of the quality of teams it sends to Wembley. Locking in the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars for 3 seasons will turn more UK fans away from the sport than it will attract.

    Apparently, there is a possibility of moving the Jags to the UK permanently. Why we would do such a terrible thing to our strongest ally in the world is a mystery.

  • Anonymous American

    To clarify some rules.
    Ineligible Receiver: There are five linemen, (from left to right) Left Tackle, Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, Right Tackle. These players are not allowed to be thrown, or catch the ball, unless tipped by an eligible player or a defensive player. To show this the linemen are given ineligible numbers (50-79). There are also 6 eligible receivers, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Quarter Backs, Half Backs/Running Backs, and Full Backs. These players are eligible to receive the ball and are given eligible numbers (1-49, 80-89). It is also a penalty for a player with an ineligible number to go more then a certain number of yards down field (depends on league). However, if a player with an ineligible number comes in at an eligible position he can report as an eligible player for that play and is allowed to receive the ball and go down field. Furthermore, if any eligible receiver goes out of bounds during the play and comes back in bounds he is ineligible to catch the ball.

    Illegal Substitution:

    Once all of the referees, chain markers, etc. are ready the ref will blow a whistle signaling that they are ready. Once this whistle has been blown, no players can sub in or out or it will result in an illegal substitution penalty.

    A list of all penalties and explanations:

    • Simon Says

      *lmao* I doubt that cleared things up for them and I am American, even though knowing it, I can see them dropping their jaws and saying”What (expletives deleted)?”

    • Silly American sod

      As an American, i can say most here view what we call soccer, as mostly a kids sport. Its something for the little ones to do before they get old enough to move up to other sports such as football, baseball, basketball, hockey, field hockey,or lacrosse. To me i just don’t get the why soccer is so big across the pond. In my view the field is too big,there are too many players, and its just simply boring! Just my opinion.

      PS- I find one of our “sports” very boring too…..NASCAR!!!

      • gn

        I’ll give you the first four, but there’s no way field hockey or lacrosse are bigger than soccer in the US.

    • gn

      Hehe. Should we retaliate with an explanation of the soccer offside rule?

      • Random American Dude

        It’s really not that hard. If in front of the ball, you have to have been behind another player on the other team (plus the GK) when you touch a ball after the last person touched it.

        It took me about 4 times being called to figure it out.

        What gets most Americans is that “offside” calls in our sports have more to do with specific positions on the FIELD and not the position of the PLAYERS.

        We wind up wondering what line on the field some player whistled for being offside crossed at first.

  • declan casey

    As a proud American, I can say that the only thing I don’t like about the country is American football. It’s too complicated, and I always made a fool of myself while playing it in PE back in high school and middle school.