Why London is ready for an NFL team

Why London is ready for an NFL team

By Tolly Taylor

The NFL’s biggest fan might be British.

Not the biggest fan of a specific team, necessarily, but of the entire league, from Arizona to Washington, D.C.

“I collect NFL gear, so I have a shirt for every team in the NFL,” said Ian Forrest, who has watched games on TV from across the Atlantic for 30 years. “I’m supporting the Washington Redskins today because I always support one of the two sides. I’ve been to every game since they started here in 2007.”

For the Oct. 30 game between the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals at London’s Wembley Stadium, Forrest wore John Riggins’ No. 44 jersey and a matching burgundy and gold cap. If you saw him at FedEx Field in his jersey and hat on any other Sunday this fall, he’d blend right in. But little else about Wembley that day felt familiar.

Pregame rituals in America vary from fan to family. Some tailgate with food and friends in stadium parking lots, some spend hours putting on their team’s war paint and making signs, others play pickup games, channeling their favorite players.

At Wembley, the NFL brought the party to the fans, as if giving an impromptu lesson on Americana. RV-sized inflated footballs dotted the landscape in front of the stadium, promoting the NFL brand while providing a backdrop for photos. Booths were set up with NFL-themed games and prizes. Perhaps more bizarre than anything else, all 32 team colors filled the seats to watch the game that day, not just Redskins and Bengals jerseys. Looking around the stadium, it felt more like the NFL Draft than an NFL game.

Medill’s Marisa Endicott also covered the Cincinnati-Washington. Her audio story about the experience is above.

In that way, the NFL in London is still more part-time spectacle than everyday religion, but that’s not necessarily a reflection of the country’s interest or dedication. They just need a team to call their own.

Lee Wood has been a loyal Miami Dolphins fan since the early 1980s. “It’s all Dan Marino—it’s all his fault,” he explained.

Still, the Brit said he would support a London-based team over any other, except his Dolphins of course.

“The question is: Would a team like the Jaguars like to play in front of 90,000 fans, or 30,000 fans in Jacksonville?” he said. “We’ve sold out Wembley and Twickenham [Stadium] every single year, so the fan base is here.”

Wood isn’t quite right—Wembley hasn’t sold out every game since 2007. But the NFL has consistently filled more than 80,000 seats, giving Wembley the second highest average attendance behind the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium over the last decade.

When the NFL started playing games in London 10 years ago, it set a target for 2022. By then, NFL officials hoped, London would be ready to host their own team. After selling out every game in 2016, the city might already be.

One of Wembley’s most recent NFL stars seemed to agree.

“The atmosphere is incredible,” said Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who echoed teammates Ryan Kerrigan and Jamison Crowder in a press conference after the game. “The fans were engaged. It was electric. It did feel like a normal NFL game, but maybe even more electric in the sense that it felt like such a unique atmosphere.”

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Above video and photos by Tolly Taylor and Marisa Endicott