British audiences are increasingly getting hooked on America’s $10bn game
“It’s called a ‘game’ not a ‘match’, a ‘touchdown’ not a ‘try’,” said my Canadian friend Tanya, as we climbed the aisle in a rowdy Wembley Stadium, “and for goodness sake, if you need to go to the bathroom, just go, the game goes on for 3 hours.”
The game was the Philadelphia Eagles versus the Jacksonville Jaguars and the stage was set for an epic showdown. A row of mammoth-sized Eagles in white space suits and Goliath-sized Jags in black space suits squared off against each other like rival armies on the brink of war, their sinewy bodies casting shadows over the lush, green pitch.
American football is beautiful in its simplicity and yet if no one explained it to you, you’d never work it out. When a team has possession, they have four attempts (or ‘downs’) to run the ball ten yards. If they succeed, they get another four attempts to make another ten yards. If they fail, possession switches to the opposing team. The target is the goal line.
When Tanya and I took our plastic seats, possession was with the Eagles.
Jason Kelce snapped the ball to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz faked left then looped right. Wentz lobbed the ball thirty yards downfield to rookie tight-end Dallas Goedert. Goedert dashed in between the Jags defence to the end zone. Score! Touchdown Philadelphia! One minute, nothing seems doing. The next, pandemonium! 85,000 fans are on their feet screaming for more! Tension to release! Calm to euphoria!
Because that’s what American football is. The constant build-up of pressure until boom! A huge release of force as one team storms through the other’s defenses, leaving a cast of bodies in their wake.
In the 1880s, when a band of Yale frat boys pioneered a new sport that would one day span continental America, they could have hardly imagined it would come to symbolise brute force in its raw form. A more violent soccer. A less gentlemanly rugby.
Nor could they have dreamed of the constellation of stars that their sport would propel – visionary Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, gravity-defying Giants’ catcher Odell Beckham Jr., gifted playmaker Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Every Sunday and Monday night, a legion of fans are glued to their screens, all to get a glimpse of their gladiatorial heroes battle it out across the arenas of America.
And the National Football League (NFL) isn’t just big brawn, it’s big money too. College kids from rough neighbourhoods in flyover States have found themselves launched into the land of the super-rich, all from securing the magical ticket of the chance to play in the big game. Not to mention how ruthless the teams are in their corporatism – ticket sales, merchandising, TV rights – it’s a $10bn industry.
On 3rd February, the fin de siècle of the American football season, the Super Bowl, will be broadcast across the globe with one hundred million people worldwide expected to watch. NFL is finally getting a foothold in the UK with three showcase games a year at Wembley and thousands of British fans catching the American football fever. Don’t you want to know what all the fuss is about?