The Super Bowl is a big spectacle. A really, really big one. More than 111 million people tuned in to watch last year’s contest between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. While the American market takes up the lion’s share of viewing figures, the NFL is becoming a February-time staple around the world, particularly in Britain where people continue to sacrifice their Monday off work for medical/sporting reasons. Generally speaking, the Super Bowl is to Britain what the World Cup is to the States: quite exciting but really confusing. However, the NFL continues to expand its transatlantic reach via its ‘International Series’ where several regular season NFL games are played in London. Despite participating franchises often losing money due to production overheads, travel costs and broadcasting rights, the games regularly sell out. It is clear that the British public is slowly coming around to what the sport has to offer. Stats only tell half of the story though and each British NFL convert will have a different account of how they got into the game; here’s mine.
What got me?
My entry point was a study abroad programme in Philadelphia. Before going, I made sure that I watched that year’s Super Bowl at the student union. The game was between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, the league’s best offenses and defences matching up in a clash that was destined to be great. Except it wasn’t. I only managed two quarters of one of the most lop-sided Super Bowls in recent memory. However, when I was in the States I had NFL-cynicism crushed out of me by an Eagles fanbase so intent on self-destruction that before their last game, the city’s police force greased light poles to prevent them from being climbed - it didn’t work. It was contagious though and I’ve continued to follow them ever since. While in the States, I was lucky enough to watch the Eagles stomp the New York Giants 27-0 with a performance that would make grown men cry. This year they managed overcome decades of bad Philly karma and make it to Super Bowl LII (52) where they face the bionic New England Patriots.
Originally, my biggest gripe was that ‘football’ wasn’t football: the pace of the game was all wrong, the outfits were strange, the anthem bit was uncomfortable. Cast away all the bells and whistles, however, and you have a brilliant sporting product that is built for big moments, none bigger than the Super Bowl. Maybe it’s the fact that Manchester City have wrapped up this Premier League with about 15,000 months to go, or that perennial ‘good teams’ like Arsenal remain stuck in a feedback loop of disappointment, but the NFL has continued to grow on me in a big way.
What stuck with me?
It’s hard to find a sport that creates storylines quite like the NFL. 7 out of the 12 playoff teams did not play in last season’s post-season. One of them, the Buffalo Bills, returned to the playoffs after 18 long years when the Cincinnati Bengals scored an improbable late touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Even the players seem more dynamic. While most post-match football interviews feel like a PR exercise complete with drab analyses and luke-warm takes, NFL players tend to exert a bit more personality – Richard Sherman calling opposing player Michael Crabtree a “sorry receiver” will always stick with me.
Also, for the first time in my experience following the Eagles, the franchise got things right this season. Howie Roseman was named as the PFWA 2017 NFL Executive of the Year for making several brilliant roster moves during the season, in particular acquiring London-born Jay Ajayi whose abrasive running style perfectly suits a team that looks to beat the soul out of their opponents. The franchise has been without star quarterback Carson Wentz after he suffered a brutal ACL injury towards the end of the regular season. However, backup quarterback Nick Foles went full Balon D’or mode to seal a return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2004 – it’s a great time to be an Eagles fan.
This year’s Super Bowl looks to be another belter. Most of the signs point to a Patriots win, and they’re the clear favourites in the match-up. Which is perfect for Philadelphia. Throughout the season, they’ve continued to defy the expectations of opposing teams, pundits and myself. Regardless of the result, the Super Bowl is sure to introduce legions of incoming Brits to the weird and wonderful world of the NFL. If that doesn’t happen then hopefully Justin Timberlake performs the entirety of Justified during the half-time show. Let’s make it happen.