American football in London
The NFL has become a regular visitor to London, playing 11 games across the pond since 2007 as part of a program dubbed the International Series. During the 2015-2016 season, the league will hold three games in London, starting with the Oct. 4 contest between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. In anticipation of this great cross-cultural sports experience, I recently sat down with Simon Bradley, vice president of marketing, North America, for Virgin Atlantic, to learn more about what the scene is all about. Virgin Atlantic is the official airline of the 2015 NFL International Series, and Simon, a Brit who has lived in the United States since 2007, is part of the team that has spearheaded Virgin Atlantic’s role in promoting American football in England. He has attended NFL International Series games at Wembley Stadium for three years in a row. Here is an edited transcript of our chat.
Matt Villano (MV): What about the experience of seeing an NFL game in London is similar to seeing an NFL game in the United States?
Simon Bradley (SB): Once you get inside the stadium and all the game-day activities start, it’s incredibly similar. There is a lot of the same Americana and razzmatazz you’d associate with the NFL. Entertainment. Fireworks. Smoke. Cheerleaders. Even though the teams are playing in London, every game still has a home team, and that team owns Wembley Stadium, bringing all of their paraphernalia from home. When Minnesota Vikings played in London, for instance, they constructed the tunnel [that goes from the clubhouse to the field] to look the same way their tunnel looks in Minnesota. They also brought mascots, and cheerleaders. It was just like being in Minneapolis. Only the game was in London.
MV: What are some of the biggest differences between seeing an NFL game in London and seeing it on home turf?
SB: The biggest difference is multitude of different team shirts that you see at a game in the United Kingdom. What happens with these games is that NFL fans from all over Europe come. Fans of all different teams, they come just to be part of it. I would bet every single NFL team is represented in the crowd of each of these games. It feels like a United Nations approach to the NFL. That’s much different from when you go to see a game in the United States and you see predominantly fans for that one franchise. Another huge difference is that Brits don’t tailgate. That’s not a thing in the United Kingdom. Going to a pub before the game is a thing, though, and there’s a lot of that. The NFL recreates a version of a tailgate outside of Wembley, but even there you don’t have enormous parking lot with multitudes of people. Finally, another difference is that the accents are very different; there are of course a lot of British people but also a lot of other Europeans there.
MV: During the games, how does fan behavior differ in London?
SB: Whenever I’ve been to an NFL game in the United States, it’s always been a great, family-friendly, and good-humored atmosphere. In Wembley, it’s much of the same. I’d describe the vibe as a party, a real celebration. People are there to enjoy a spectacle and the NFL certainly puts on that spectacle for them. Because American football isn’t the leading sport in the United Kingdom, those people who do watch it have a sense of camaraderie about it. They come together and compare notes and talk about games that they’ve been to. They meet other people who are NFL fans. If you’re an NFL fan in the United Kingdom, attending these games is cool because it’s not something you would be able to do all the time.
MV: What is the food and beer like at the NFL games in London?
SB: Food and beer options are remarkably similar to what you have in the United States. Budweiser is the beer you drink when you’re in the stadium; the NFL has a deal that enables that to happen. There also are lots of authentic American stadium food options as well. Personally, I am a chili-cheese hot dog kind of guy.
MV: For fans visiting from elsewhere, what are some of the official fan experiences outside of the game-day stuff? What sort of ‘official’ NFL events outside of the games that fans can take part in?
SB: Within London the NFL stages a few marquee events. For one of the events, they do a fan rally. It’s usually in Trafalgar Square, and usually only before one of the games. This year (2015) it’s scheduled to happen before the first game. The league takes over Trafalgar square and turns it into an NFL party. They have a stage. They bring in players. Before another one of the games every year the NFL sponsors something called the Regent Street Block Party. They have a parade down Regent Street. Hundreds of thousands of people go through there.
MV: What other sporting events should people experience when they visit London to see the NFL?
SB: I suggest fans use time on the Saturday to go and take in English Premier League [soccer] game. If you really have your heart set on a big premiership game, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsenal all are popular and one of the teams will be at home. My pick is to go for one of the smaller London teams. The atmosphere in these smaller arenas is fantastic. Last year I went to see Fulham FC on the day before one of the NFL games. That’s a lovely club on the River Thames. Another is the Queens Park Rangers. Not all of these teams are in the Premiership, but they’re all reasonably accessible from Central London.
Viewfinder Tip: Before you book, be sure to check out Virgin Atlantic’s blog coverage of the 2015 NFL International Series.
MV: If I’m visiting for a long weekend, I’m seeing a EPL game on the Saturday and the NFL game on Sunday, what other sites should I cram in to my visit?
SB: My top picks would be to do the London Eye, walk across Westminster Bridge, then walk up into Central London where you can do Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace and that whole area. It’s also important that you stop at a pub. Everybody needs to have the authentic London pub experience. My favorites are old pubs that serve real ale and great English pub food. In summer, I also like to look for pubs that have a bit of seating outside.
MV: Any packing tips for making NFL-specific travel to London easier?
SB: You don’t have to pay for checked baggage on Virgin Atlantic, so you can bring whatever you want and check it. [As an aside, all sports equipment travels free on Virgin Atlantic.] That means you can do London in style. You can bring a whole range of outfits, all of your NFL shirts, and your best going-out clothes—you don’t need to worry. I’d say that on top of that, make sure you bring face-painting [equipment]. NFL fans are brilliant at face-painting. That’s one of their top skills I think. Face paints are easily portable. And If they’re not too big, you can put it in your hand luggage.
MV: Last question: Is it acceptable to wear an NFL jersey on the plane?
SB: Absolutely. If you do I’d say you’re guaranteed to get some questions from our flight attendants. It shows support for your team, and it’s a good conversation starter, too.
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