Monday, June 17, 2024

London games draw NFL fans from across Europe

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LONDON — When 84,000 fans pack into Wembley Stadium to see the Washington Redskins face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, they won’t just be representing the NFL’s burgeoning British following.

Fans from across the continent will be making the trip to the showpiece soccer venue; they’ll be hopping on flights and trains to take in the live experience of a sport they have only ever seen on television.

One of the most striking features of the NFL’s International Series: the sheer range of fans who show up to the London games. While the Jacksonville Jaguars have become Wembley’s team in residence, committing to play there once a year until 2020, jerseys from around the league can be seen no matter who is playing on the field.

For all the British accents heard in the official tailgate party outside Wembley — or across town at Twickenham Stadium, which hosted its first NFL match last Sunday — there are also French, German and Spanish voices busily gossiping about the sport.

Akin Cetin is a 20-year-old engineer from Mainz, Germany, who made the trip to Twickenham for the game between the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. He said the atmosphere at English rugby’s headquarters was unlike anything he had experienced.

“The Giants game was the first live one I’ve seen and my first time in London,” said Cetin, a Baltimore Ravens fan. “The atmosphere was brilliant. In soccer, you have two fan bases, one for the home team and one for the away, and they fight and shout. At this NFL game, there weren’t just fans of two teams, there were fans of all 32 teams there.

“It was such a good feeling to be there. At that point, I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this every year.’ The people I met there were all interested in [American] football like me; we made jokes about our teams and their records. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

That camaraderie among fans was clear to see during the tailgates at Wembley and Twickenham earlier this month, when Arizona Cardinals fans from Austria and Tennessee Titans supporters from Switzerland could be found mingling over beer and hot dogs. Cetin said the appetite for the game was only growing in his home country.

“Football is becoming bigger and bigger in Germany,” he said. “You’re hearing people say, ‘Sorry I can’t come out on Sunday because I’m watching football.’ As a real football fan and not one just jumping on the bandwagon, it’s beautiful to see more and more people enjoy the sport I love.

“I hope that the NFL will one day have one or two games per season in Germany. That would be so great.”

League officials said 94 percent of ticket holders at International Series games have come from the UK, with the rest evenly split between Americans and Europeans.

With Wembley hosting around 84,000 fans, it can be estimated that approximately 2,500 of them will be dropping in from continental Europe. That number could be big business for London and some of the travel companies that serve the city, with many fans willing to pay a pretty price for a taste of live NFL.

Cyrille Gohier, a 43-year-old Parisian who has been following the league since 1985, is just one example. The nuclear planning engineer — and New England Patriots fan — attends a London game each year and estimated he spends £500 ($610) or more each time.

“For the train, it’s perhaps £150 ($183), then the ticket is £120 ($147) because I like to go in the best seats,” Gohier said before his trip to London for the Redskins-Bengals game. “Then another £150 ($183) if I stay in a hotel, and inside the stadium, I spend maybe £50 ($61). But if I purchase some merchandise at the tailgate, then it can go up very fast!”

Gohier says the atmosphere is unrivaled at the London games because they are the only chance for European NFL fans to gather in one place.

“If you follow rugby, you can support your team maybe two times per month in the stadium, but London is a meeting for fans of all [NFL] teams,” he said. “You see all the jerseys. Some from 20 years ago, some from now. There’s a kind of U.S. atmosphere too, but it’s a mix of the American and the European. You can’t compare it to any other game in any sport in Europe.”

As the NFL grows in the UK, the mighty Premier League has demonstrated the riches that could be on offer from foreign fans venturing over for live matches. The tourist authority VisitBritain said the average spent per trip for soccer spectators in the country is £855 ($1,044), and 800,000 tourists attended at least one game in 2014.

Jeremy Jolicart lives in Bordeaux, France, and traveled to London with his wife for the game at Twickenham. He estimated he spent about £900 ($1,099) in the city during his five-day trip, and he said it was worth every cent for the chance to see the American football stars in action.

“I’m a big Giants fan, so it was obvious that I’d travel to London for the game,” the 31-year-old IT worker said. “The thing I enjoy most is seeing the players in real life, because it’s not just an image on your TV screen.

“I love the NFL because of the show it puts on. Every game is spectacular. No professional leagues in France do the same thing.”

For Jolicart, fandom has no borders.

“I travel to London because it’s cheaper and closer than going to the U.S. to see games, but if they staged a game in another country in Europe, I’d go there too just to discover a new place,” he said. “I’ve been in Dublin for the Notre Dame-Navy game [in 2012], and last year, I was in San Francisco for the 49ers-Vikings game. My wife and I just really love football.”

Sunday’s game at Wembley will be the last one in London this year, but it’s not the end of this season’s International Series; the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders are set to meet in Mexico City next month.

Rumors are swirling, too, that the NFL is eyeing a match in Germany as the league seeks to grow the game internationally. The European fans would certainly welcome that move. Next stop, Berlin?

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