September 20, 2016
We’re all about bringing American football to the UK over the next few weeks, but first we’re turning the tables to get the lowdown on our beautiful game from a ‘soccer’ mad American of our own.
According to the NFL, participation in amateur American football in the UK has increased by around 15 per cent per year since the NFL International Series was launched in 2007, with more than 40,000 participants aged 16 or older playing regular games. British teams like the Oxford Saints and London Hornets are giving UK-based NFL fans even more opportunities to experience the sport, and American expats can now pick a local team to support while living in their adopted country.
Yet here at Virgin Atlantic HQ, some of our US team members have developed an ongoing obsession with English football instead, and none more so than Chief Information Officer Don Langford, who’s responsible for the airline’s technology. Originally from Minnesota, Don has lived in the UK for the past two decades and today, over the top of his usual smart white shirt he is proudly wearing the pastel blue colours of the Man City team kit. At the time of writing, his team has just beaten their closest rival Manchester United and are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, so he’s entitled to be in a pretty good mood.
But how did this die-hard fan come to support the Blues in the first place? After all, they haven’t been riding high at the top of the league forever. Turns out Don was invited by a Mancunian friend to the now-legendary second division playoff final at Wembley Stadium back in 1999 and the rest, as they say, is history.
“City had spent some years being comically mismanaged, and had fallen not one, but two levels from the top flight,” he explains. “They were 2-0 down with a few minutes left, seemingly doomed to spend another ruinous year in the lower leagues. But they managed to tie in the last seconds, and won on penalties to be promoted. The emotion of the day sealed the deal, and I became a passionate City supporter.”
More than 15 years later, Don’s devotion to Manchester City and English football in general has continued to grow exponentially. Today, not only is he a passionate advocate of the game, he’s also ideally placed to give us an insight into why competitive sports in his two respective countries are so incredibly different.
“Living in the UK for such a long time now, I style myself as an expert in the myriad differences between life in the US and the UK,” he says. “So I’ll start with a confession: I’ve fallen in love with English football (soccer to my American friends). It is significantly different than sports in America for a whole host of reasons.
“The US has four major sports leagues, plus a number of minor leagues, not to mention college athletics. In the UK, football is king. Cricket fills the summer gap, and rugby is popular, but football dominates the sporting and cultural calendar. When every sports fan’s attention is centered on the same league, a lively discussion is never very far away.
“Football teams are rooted in their community here. There has been essentially no expansion or moving of franchises. In almost every case, the team your Grandfather cheered for is in the same stadium today.
“England is a far more densely populated land than the USA. This allows local rivalries to develop and thrive (or fester, depending on your point of view). A win in a local derby allows your supporters to have bragging rights in town—until next time, of course.
“Major league sport in the USA has socialist tendencies in many ways. Rules are in place to help weaker teams get better. Bad teams have the first pick of good players each year; big cities aren’t allowed a revenue or spending advantage over smaller ones; in American football, even the playing schedule is adjusted to allow an advantage to poorer teams. Seasons end in a broad championship playoff, to which mediocre teams often qualify.
“The opposite is true here. English football is brutally capitalist. With few exceptions, if you have money, you can spend it as you like. You like the look of a player on a smaller team? Offer a few million and that player’s often yours. Your team has played badly and ended up at the bottom of the standings? That’s a shame; you fall through the trap door to a lower league, and a hungrier champion from below gets to play in the big league next year. Playoffs? That’s for weaklings. There’s one trophy, and that’s for finishing first.
“Then there’s the romance of the FA Cup, which has been held for 145 years. Every—and I mean every— organized team in the land, amateur or professional, enters a countrywide knockout tournament, which is held in parallel with league play. There’s nothing the country loves as much as a scrappy bunch of part-time bricklayers hosting a team of professional multi-millionaires in their quaint little stadium. The nation loves to root for the underdog, and sometimes, just often enough, they come through with a giant-killing!
“Technology has not yet encroached the English game. There aren’t timeouts for commercials or video replays or tactics from the coach. Only three players can be substituted. The referee controls the game and the clock. There are fewer distractions around the match; it starts at 3 p.m and you’re always walking out of the stadium at 5 p.m. It’s all about the football.”
And it’s all about the football for Virgin Atlantic too over the next month or so – but this time of the American variety. We’ve been the official sponsor of the NFL International Series since 2009, and every year we fly all six participating teams to and from London for their game. Last week we shared exactly what it takes to bring the Series to the UK, with a behind-the-scenes look at all the bespoke planning involved in such an epic logistical endeavour.
Now we’re getting excited about the games themselves. The 2016 NFL International Series returns to London for three matchups next month, with the Jacksonville Jaguars taking on the Indianapolis Colts at Wembley Stadium on 2 October, followed by the New York Giants vs. Los Angeles Rams at Twickenham Stadium on 23 October, and then back to Wembley on the 30 October for the final series game between the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals.