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Touchdown! American football goes long in the UK

By: Virgin Atlantic

October 3, 2015

For American football’s ever-growing fan base in the UK, fall is an exciting season. For the ninth year running, the NFL International Series is coming to London, with three regular season matches being held at Wembley Stadium in October and November 2015. While some may be surprised to hear of the massive support for this quintessentially American sport in the UK, there’s no question that football fever is kicking off among London fans.

“American football, or gridiron, as it is called in many parts, has for a long time been bubbling under the surface of mainstream spectator sports here in the UK, with pockets of fans dotted all over the country,” explains Simon Buckett, a coach with local football club the London Warriors. “There are also many opportunities country-wide to watch your local teams play, as unbeknownst to most, the sport is played here at all age levels, genders and abilities during the summer months.”

Read on to find out more about the 2015 International Series and the booming American football scene in the US, as well as what it takes to fly an NFL team across the pond”¦

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New York Jets Offense and Defense Practice – Image © Marianne O’Leary

Catch the excitement of the NFL International Series in London

The NFL International Series was born in 2007 as a means of promoting American football outside the United States. Unlike the American Bowl, which it replaces and which consisted of pre-season exhibition matches, the International Series features regular season games in a variety of global destinations.

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In front of the Wembley Stadium – Image © Sean Ryan NFLUK

Between 2007 and 2012, Wembley Stadium played host to one NFL match a season; this increased to two in 2013, and three in 2014 to reflect growing interest and support. The games regularly sell out, with crowds of over 80,000 in attendance. Indeed, UK fans have responded so enthusiastically that there’s talk of London possibly getting its own NFL team by 2022 – most likely if one of the existing 32 teams decides to make the move. The NFL has already signed up to a 10-year deal with Tottenham Hotspur to play two matches a year at the club’s brand-new stadium, so it’s clear the appetite for American football in the UK is growing.

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The Miami Dolphins about to board for this year’s International Series. Image © Miami Dolphins

Virgin Atlantic has been the series’ official airline sponsor since 2009, a role which includes flying the six participating teams to and from London for each match. This is a large-scale operation, with around five months of planning going into the specially chartered flights. So, how do the journeys get off the ground? Here are the logistics:

 

  • Each team travels with a retinue of between 160 and 220 people, which includes not only the players themselves, but coaches, managers, medical and dietary consultants and other support staff.
  • Each flight carries between 7,000kg and 11,000kg of essential gear that must travel with the team, as well as around 3,000kg of personal luggage – in addition to the shipments of gear and team merchandise sent in advance.
  • Because football players have much higher calorie requirements and consequently eat much more than the average person, Virgin Atlantic stock around twice as much food and drink on each flight as they do for a normal transatlantic crossing.
  • Virgin Atlantic works with the teams’ coaches and nutritionists to develop special menus that cater to the players’ dietary needs as well as their personal tastes, with each team being served a uniquely tailored menu.
  • Each player will be served at least two full meals on each flight, with extra portions of protein, plus a selection of sandwiches and their favourite snacks sourced specially for the flight.
  • As the NFL charter flights are dry, the extra space normally reserved for storing alcohol is used to stock extra food and snacks.

What you can expect at the 2015 NFL International Series

The 2015 NFL International Series will feature three matches in October and November, including two matches on back-to-back Sundays for the first time ever in the UK. On Sunday October 4th, the Miami Dolphins will host the New York Jets (kick-off 2:30pm) in the first ever NFL division game played in London. Next, the Jacksonville Jaguars will host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday October 25th (kick-off 1:30pm), followed by the Kansas City Chiefs playing host to the Detroit Lions on Sunday November 1st (kick-off 2:30pm). The Bills, the Jets and the Chiefs are all making their first appearances in London, bringing the number of NFL teams that have played in the capital to 20 – more than half the league. For more fun facts on the participating teams, check out the infographic below:

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What’s more, the match-day atmosphere and energy levels in the stadium are already being compared to what you’d find at football games in the States, and are accessible even to those less familiar with the sport. “If you prefer the live experience, nothing beats the Wembley games played now three times a year,” says Buckett. “They are a real spectacle and an amazing event, even if you don’t know your field goals from your first downs.”

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Miami Dolphins playing the Washington Redskins © Keith Allison

James Dunstan, press officer for UK-based football team the Oxford Saints, agrees: “Traveling to the Wembley games is itself a great experience. If you’re using the London Underground, you’ll see the carriages packed with fans in all 32 NFL team jerseys. As you exit the train, you’re presented with an inspiring view of Wembley Stadium and the sight of thousands of fans making their way towards it, with NFL banners visible, too. American, British and European fans, along with others from across the globe all mix together to enjoy food, drinks and stories of American football glory.”

Get in the match day spirit with pre-game fan events

The NFL International Series also aims to introduce elements of American football culture to its UK audience, including the entertainment spectacle that surrounds matches in the US. The pre-game shows at Wembley have previously included big-name acts such as Calvin Harris, Little Mix, Tinie Tempah, the Stereophonics and Joss Stone, and half-time features the usual high-octane performances from the teams’ cheerleaders.

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NFL International Series 2014 Fan Rally © Sean Ryan NFLUK

Whether you’re attending the game or not, you can drop by the Fan Rally in Trafalgar Square on Saturday October 3rd or the Game Day Fan Plaza outside Wembley itself on Sunday October 4th for music, dance and cheerleading performances, appearances by NFL legends, as well as current players and coaches, plus food, drink, competition and NFL merchandise stalls. It’s not a tailgate party per se, but it’s still a great way to gear up for the match.

2015 will also see the return of the hugely popular NFL on Regent Street fan event on Saturday October 24th. More than 600,000 football fans are expected to descend on the famous shopping street, which will be pedestrianized between Piccadilly and Oxford Circus for the occasion. Activities on the day will include performances by cheerleaders and marching bands, exhibits on the teams participating in this series, appearances by coaches and players, interactive games that let you test your own football skills and plenty more.

Virgin Atlantic’s very own Red Hot Reporter will be attending all the pre-game events, as well as the matches themselves, so be sure to check their social media updates for a taste of what’s happening on the day.

Can’t make it? Watch the games on TV

According to NFL figures, approximately 13.8 million people in the UK watched televised American football last year, with 3.5 million tuning in for the Super Bowl alone. Because of the surge in demand, Sky Sports has secured exclusive rights for many of the games, and will show six live games a week for the next two years, including the Wembley matches. You can also catch live games and highlights on the BBC (including the International Series and Super Bowl) or through the NFL Game Pass, an online subscription service available to UK fans.

Kansas City Chiefs Cheerleaders

Image © Harmony

Local UK teams getting involved

Watching the International Series is also inspiring an increasing number of Brits to actively get involved in the sport through the British American Football Association, university teams and other organizations. As Dunstan explains, “A strong correlation exists between the rising popularity of the NFL in the UK and an increase in grassroots participation at local clubs. The Saints and hundreds of other clubs around the country receive lots of interest from UK fans who love watching the game on TV and want to start playing.”

Teams in the BAFA League generally play 10 games a season – five at home and five away, at locations all across the country – plus at least one pre-season friendly, and several play-off matches if they make it to the finals. Training sessions usually take place once a week year-round, and often twice or more during the season. The players are all there on a voluntary basis, and the clubs are primarily self-funded.

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The Oxford Saints team. Image © Gareth Brown

The Oxford Saints are the UK’s longest-running American football club, having just celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2013. For the 2015 season, they have about 75 players on the roster, reflecting the heightened interest in the sport, which includes growing demand for youth and women’s teams. Many of the Saints’ coaches are themselves former players, and it’s not unusual for several members of the same family to get involved with the club.

A more recent addition to the UK scene is the London Hornets, which were set up in 2012 by two coaches, Paul Holmes and Tony Price, to give even more players the chance to experience the sport. As Greg Ivison, assistant defensive coordinator for the team, notes, “We have players from all over the world. Efe Obada, who now plays on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, first discovered football with Coach Paul and Coach Tony at the London Renegades, and trained for a brief period with the London Hornets before being picked up by Premiership outfit the London Warriors.”

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The London Hornets team. Image © Phil Huu

The Warriors were formed in 2007 as the senior equivalent of the successful London Warriors youth team, who had won the British Youth American Football Association the previous two years running. Currently part of the BAFA Premiership, they’ve reached the BritBowl finals in the last five consecutive years, winning the title in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

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A London Warriors player in action. Image © London Warriors

The sport is also surging in popularity in Scotland. As Don Edmonston, head coach of the Edinburgh Wolves, explains, “American football is the ultimate team game and the ultimate sport for all. The Wolves now boast the largest club in Scotland, with teams for youth, juniors, seniors and women competing across the UK.” Founded in 2002, the club has already reached the national finals twice in its history.

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The Edinburgh Wolves in action. Image © Edinburgh Wolves

Places to watch American football in London

Fancy some company while watching the game? If you don’t have tickets for a match at Wembley, there are still plenty of places in London where you can get together with other fans to watch the games. The London Hornets’ Greg Ivison suggests the following:

Rileys Sports Bar Haymarket: With a handy location just off Trafalgar Square, Rileys is the quintessential London sports bar, with 34 screens, four bars, pool and ping pong tables and an American-style diner.

Maple Leaf: This popular Canadian-themed bar in Covent Garden shows a variety of sports, and is also a great place to sample North American beers and pub grub.

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Interior of the Maple Leaf Pub in London. Image ©  Ken Mist

Camden Eye: Conveniently located near the Camden Town tube station, the Camden Eye is a friendly, traditional London pub – and the unofficial London Hornets clubhouse.

Walkabout Temple: The Temple location of this lively Australian-themed pub chain has a chilled-out vibe, and some of the Hornets players drop by to watch matches on their plasma screens.

Bodean’s BBQ: Inspired by the flavors and soul of the founder’s hometown of Kansas City, this London BBQ chain is a great place to sample authentic American-style barbecue food while watching a game.

The Famous Three Kings: Situated just a short walk from West Kensington station, the Famous Three Kings shows a huge assortment of sports every day – check on their website to see which NFL games they’re showing.

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The Famous Three Kings in West Kensington. Image © Ewan Munro

Shop for American football gear in the UK

If you’re interested in getting involved in the sport yourself, or simply want to declare your status as a fan, there are also a number of online and offline shops in London and the UK that sell American football kits and merchandise. Our club contacts all recommend checking out the following:

Nike Town: Located at the corner of Regent and Oxford Streets, Nike’s flagship store is stocked with a huge range of NFL merchandise. As Simon Buckett points out, “You could start on the ground floor a regular human, and by the time you reach the top, be dripping head to toe in enough NFL apparel to be confused for a starting Pro Bowl pick – from base layers and socks, through to team t-shirts and hoodies.”

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Image © Phil Huu from the London Hornets

Football America: As official distributors of a wide selection of American football gear brands, online shop Football America help UK-based players access the same specialist kit as their American peers. They also have a showroom in Leicester where experts are on hand to help you make your choice.

EP Sports: Founded by ex-player and coach Joe Black, EP Sports is another excellent online shop specialising in high-quality American football kit for individuals and teams by leading brands, such as Under Armour. Other options include Stateside Sports and Comet Sports.

Explore London with Virgin Atlantic

Eager to explore the UK’s booming American football scene, and thinking of watching an NFL game at Wembley? Virgin Atlantic offer low fares to London year-round. Book your flight today, and get ready to kick off your London adventure.

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Image © Stefano Motagner

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