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Is the NFL’s London experiment working?

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In some ways, the integration is complete

New Orleans Saints v Miami Dolphins Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images

The NFL returns to London this week. Last time they were there, I just happened to be there as well.

England, despite its perceived and at times real snobbery towards America, loves America. The omens were immediate.

The gate at Heathrow welcomed you to... America. In a glorified waiting room was a large photo of the Atlanta skyline. Having just sat on a plane for nine hours from Atlanta, I didn’t need to see a picture taken down the street from where I live. Thanks Delta. American culture is everywhere, it dominates the television, not just in channel selections, with everything from SyFy to Turner Classic Movies on offer, but in programming, they even have Law & Order marathons. Starbucks are just as omnipresent. Convenience stores have British snacks but American drinks. England is taking more than they are giving.

With a vacation that coincided with an NFL game, the Jaguars hosting the Ravens, we had considered going. But watching the Jaguars play is about as unappealing as it gets, and seeing the Ravens play a game they should win is a non-starter for my wife, who is a Steelers fan. So of course the Jaguars were highly entertaining in a blow out. Oh well.

An opportunity missed, but there was another one that evening (1pm games are at 6pm): to see how watching a game at the bar with strangers compares in the two nations, if it does at all. Everyone has experienced watching a game at a bar, sharing the camaraderie with strangers and exchanging at least mild insults with people in your rivals gear. Invariably, someone on a team that nobody cares about will make a play that the whole bar will react to. Does a country with next to no history with the sport have the same attitude?

It almost didn’t happen, and made me wonder just how much the city, let alone the country, cares.

After two days of walking around most of central London, one thing that struck me is how little the city appears to care about the NFL. Spend a few days walking around the key parts of any major American city and you’re bound to stumble upon at least a few places that advertise that they show Premiere League or Champions League games, and possibly even that it’s a particular team bar. There are distinctive soccer bars, and they aren’t hard to find by the naked eye, and easily found on the internet.

In the London that I saw, there was none of that for the NFL. Nobody—nobody—had any signage that said they were the place to catch NFL action. Finding a team specific bar, forget it. The reason for this was straightforward: whereas the exception to bars and restaurants in America is that there is no TV, in London it is the opposite: few establishments bother putting up a TV. You go to a restaurant to eat, and a pub to drink and socialize, if you want to watch TV that’s what your TV at home is for.

But there had to be somewhere to go. Googling for spots was nearly fruitless, mostly just lists of places that have the UK’s NFL rights carrier, Sky Sports (and they were incorrect anyway as they listed a pub a few blocks from where I stayed that didn’t have a TV). That’s a bit like looking for an NHL bar in the South and just being told which bars have sports on TV, it wasn’t at all helpful. Eventually, on the seventh or eighth page of Google results, I found what appeared to be the best substitute for the classic American sports bar.

Riley’s, a couple of blocks from Trafalgar Square, looked to check most of the boxes for standard fare American local chain sports bar: TVs full of sports, games such as pool and darts, and a menu more American than British, with wings, nachos, chicken fingers, loaded fries, and of course burgers. Britons love their burgers. The only thing missing was a “Philly steak” (which some places do have) but since no one who ever calls it a “Philly steak” gets it right, it wasn’t really missing. Even the fish and chips were in their own small section of British food.

Which brings us to the stereotype of British food being bad. Like other stereotypes, this one is wrong. The problem with British food isn’t the taste, as everything I had was delicious. In some ways, British food is better, the pre-made food available at kiosks and convenience stores is of superior quality to ours, and even the junk food is better, potato chips (yes, “crisps”) aren’t greasy and don’t leave a residue of flavoring on your fingers, to say nothing of how we really need Cheese and Onion chips in America.

No, the problem with British food is the lack of range. There are Indian, Italian, and tapas restaurants everywhere, with plenty of French ones mixed throughout and no shortage of pizza options if you visit London. But every British restaurant has essentially the same menu: a burger, perhaps a fish and chips (though most places with fish and chips have only fish and chips), or some pies, and not much else. Every place with Sunday brunch has a traditional English breakfast, and if you’re lucky, more than one other option. If you like brown food, or if you dislike having choices on your menu, England is the place for you. Adding to the frustration of similarity, nearly every pub near where we stayed was owned by the same group, so they all had the exact same food on offer. I found this to be the case in other sections of town as well, though seemingly to a lesser degree. But even the true independent pubs didn’t have many more options, essentially everyone has the same menu just dressed up a little differently.

Anyways, Riley’s was basically like going to Buffalo Wild Wings: football on every TV, an overworked kitchen and staff, fried foods, plenty of beer, and an angry Eagles fan. In defense of the fan (not me), the early game that was originally scheduled to be on their projected screen, which was Sky’s game of the week, was Giants-Eagles, so Riley’s website said they would be showing that on their big screen, and the bartenders were under the impression that was the case. But Sky had switched the game to the Lions-Falcons, a more appealing game on paper. A dude in a Brian Dawkins jersey seemed disappointed. An older American gentleman (all fans encountered were English, unless otherwise specified) who was also an Eagles fan was quite upset at this change, and then a Giants fan joined him in complaining to the staff in what must have been the only moment of unity between the two fanbases on game day in the history of the rivalry. Eventually the game was put up on most of the smaller screens they had, which was more than enough for me. I can’t say the same for the extra from Silver Linings Playbook fight scene, but he had no choice but to live with it. I was more interested to get a glimpse of what NFL fans in the UK are like than zero in on a game I didn’t expect to be able to watch in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, they’re a lot like American fans. The major difference, understandably, was how they became fans. Arriving early, a guy in a Texans uniform snagged the large table behind us for the rest of his soon to arrive friends, who all wound up supporting different teams. With some time to kill, I just had to ask how a foreigner becomes a fan of the Houston Texans, a team with barely any history. I still don’t know how they have any fans in the UK, if they do. The man, whose name I didn’t catch, isn’t a Texans fan. He got the jersey because in his fantasy league the winner gets a jersey of their choice. He isn’t a big fan of any particular team, but his best player that season, 2015, was DeAndre Hopkins, so it made sense to get his jersey. Further proving that his fandom is towards the sport than a team, he also had a Jaguars hat he got while at the game earlier in the day. He found the duality absurd as well.

His story might seem strange, but it isn’t. How do you pick a team in a league that is played an ocean away? There’s no wrong answer, and for the NFL, that’s not so bad. Virtually every team was represented at Riley’s, including some of the worst teams or ones with the smallest fanbases were represented, with Jets, Titans, Chargers, Cardinals, and Bengals jerseys, and someone in a Greg Little Browns jersey. I also encountered as many Jacksonville fans inside the bar, who were English, as I did outside the bar all week, who were traveling Americans. Two.

And everyone was playing fantasy football. Everyone. London may or may not be able to support a full time NFL team, but it certainly can support fantasy football.

They still have something to learn: they’re too nice (a point re-enforced the next night at Emirates Stadium when the man next to us was politely asked “sir everyone else is sitting can you please sit down too?” rather than a “down in front!”). A few tables over were a pair of Cowboys fans who were nice to me. A man named Mitchell in an Ezekiel Elliott jersey gave me a half-hearted boo when he saw my Eagles shirt, then posed for a picture with me. This is not the way it is supposed to work.

Maybe it was for the better. He and his friend were far outnumbered by Eagles fans, who were the most represented team that day. That might have been because the Eagles-Giants game was originally scheduled to be the featured game, but there only were just a handful of Giants fans. Eagles fans showing up in droves is the way it is supposed to work.

One such group of fans was a lovely Eagles fan couple from Edinburgh. Frazer and his girlfriend, who had come down to go the Ravens-Jaguars game, joined us at our table. His method of choosing the Eagles was no less unorthodox than anyone else’s. Years ago his friend bought Madden, and together, neither having never ever seen a NFL game, let the game randomly pick their teams, and they played a game despite not knowing anything about it. His friend got the Patriots, he got the Eagles. Both have been diehards ever since.

Watching the Eagles race out to an early lead only to see it slip away, in more ways than one it felt like home. Adam Thielen made a dazzling catch that had the place purring. Everyone looked at other strangers with the same confused look on the ruling of Marcus Cooper’s premature touchdown celebration turned fumble. A German Ravens fan got mad at nothing in particular. When Jake Elliott kicked his way into Eagles lore, the whole place nuts. There was the agony of Lions fans, the ecstasy of Falcons fans, and the disbelief by everyone else when the refs took away a touchdown for Detroit. And everyone hates Tom Brady.

It was football. In London. This just might work.