NFL plays its first game at new London stadium with retractable pitch
A man in a New York Giants jersey threw a pass and it was dropped by a guy in a Baltimore Ravens jersey. The crowd laughed as a man in a Denver Broncos jersey fumbled the ball and kicked it away in frustration.
Then a boy no older than 10 grabbed the ball, sidestepped a zealous Green Bay Packers supporter and carried out an elaborate celebration he clearly spent a lot of time practicing.
With an ever-growing crowd assembling around them, an impromptu game of pitch-and-catch took place on the road outside Tottenham Hotspur Stadium between fans on their way to the game Sunday between the Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders.
The NFL International Series was here.
While supporters’ pre-match soccer rituals often include a few drinks at the pub before heading to the ground for kick-off, these fans turned up three hours before kickoff. And while rival soccer fans are often segregated and heavily policed, these NFL fans mingled, shared jokes and threw the ball to one another.
Not only was this the first of four NFL games in London this season, it also marked the first American football game at spanking new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which opened earlier this year. The stadium features a retractable grass pitch which was slid aside Sunday to allow the game to be played on synthetic turf underneath.
NFL fandom is growing in the UK
NFL is the sport in the USA, but when teams have crossed the pond to entertain London crowds they have sometimes felt like they’re playing second fiddle to another sport, playing on turf pitches that had just been used for soccer matches.
But following the construction of the £1 billion ($123 billion), state-of-the-art Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with its interchangeable soccer and NFL pitches, bespoke NFL locker rooms and dedicated home and away press conference rooms, the UK is clearly taking pro football more seriously.
English Premier League schedule-makers even ensured that Tottenham played away in Brighton Saturday to accommodate the NFL.
And this increased respect for a sport that’s been marginalized in the UK is something that fans have noticed.
Max Davies, adorned in a tattered Raiders jersey, has been a diehard fan of the Silver and Black since the 1980s. He said he hasn’t seen NFL fandom in the UK be this serious since he began following the team.
“I think there were questions about whether or not they could fill stadiums for more than one game a year,” he said.
“We’ve obviously gone up to four (games) now and they are all completely sold out. It’s more mainstream. It’s a lot more in the public consciousness.”
Although this game is being played in London, its managed to maintain some Americanness. Fans tailgated hours before kickoff, there was a halftime show and when Josh Jacobs scored the game’s first touchdown in the second quarter, the flashing light show and booming sound system bore similarities to an NFL stadium.
An NFL franchise in London?
As sports leagues look to expand their markets, games on foreign soil are happening with increasing regularity.
There are five international NFL games this season, including the Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Chargers in Mexico City in November. The NBA will play games this season in Mexico City and Paris, and even soccer leagues have considered playing regular-season games outside of the country.
So could we see a permanent NFL team in London?
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who also owns the London-based soccer team Fulham, is a key driver pushing forward the idea of a London team. His Jaguars team have become London’s de facto team as they’ve played the most times in the English capital.
But, with the sizeable weekly commute that a London NFL team would face, plus questions about how strong support for the NFL actually is in the UK, the prospect of a London team has opinions spilt.
Davies, the long-term Raiders fan, said he’d be willing to switch allegiances if a team relocated to the UK.
“It’s one of those questions that have been bandied around for a while,” Max said. “For me, it would be a question of where my allegiances would lie – to the team that I’ve supported for the past 30 years or to the London team.
“A London team would definitely be something that I would be a season ticket holder for.”
In the end Sunday the Raiders beat the Bears, 24-21. But the festive sellout crowd, the cacophony of jersey colors and the wide range of fans’ ages all suggest that the NFL in the UK is the real winner.