“Who are ya? Who are ya?” sang the three lads I was hosting for the weekend, bedecked in their NFL replica jerseys with their respective nations’ flags tied around their necks, flowing down like a sporty Superman’s cape, as they pointed at the opposing fans walking by. Most people greeted the chant with looks of bemusement, confusion or mild humour. I kept waiting for someone to say “Hi, I’m Brad – who are you?”. It was becoming clear that British and American fans had some fundamental differences when it came to game day behaviour.
I lived in America for ten years and was fortunate enough to attend a lot of NFL games during my time there. I’d become a fan almost immediately upon arrival into the country due to watching games in sports bars on huge TV screens, surrounded by American friends who were loud and enthusiastic about their team. I therefore couldn’t wait to see my first live game.
Being from England, my live sports experiences were limited to attending plenty of football matches and the occasional rugby match. The routine with the former was pretty much the same every fortnight – get the bus to town, have a couple at the pub beforehand, walk to the ground with a boisterous, chanting crowd before spending a couple of hours splitting my time between singing the usual half dozen songs, berating the officials/opposing team and hopefully cheering a goal or two. Sometimes an extra couple of songs would reverberate that were tailored just to that day’s opponents or may reflect some recent current event. By and large I’ve always been impressed with UK football fans’ underrated levels of wit and improvisational skills.
So as I set out to embark on my first NFL game, I didn’t know what really to expect. And now having been to dozens, here is what I’ve learned about the differences between British and American supporters.
1) NFL fans don’t do singing
While the camaraderie engendered by a sing-along is popular on these isles, in the US it’s just not seen as intimidating or a particularly good way to show your support, and perhaps rightly so. The “who are ya” chants mentioned in the opening to this blog were met with general mirth by both home and away fans. Various attempts over the years by visiting British fans to get the crowd going with “cheer up so and so, oh what can it mean, etc” were met with dumbfounded stares. If you really want to get under the skin of an opposing fan “*insert team/player/coach name here* SUCKS!” is far more wounding. US fans like the direct approach and songs never catch on. The nearest we’ve had is “oh-ohing” in time with The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and that’s really more of a chant.
2) They DO do chanting
There is something beautifully simplistic yet effective at yelling incoherently and at the top of your lungs when the other team are on offense. Forget about a clever dig at the Quarterback’s parentage, if you really want to put them off, make sure they can’t hear themselves think and more importantly make sure their linemen can’t hear the snap count. The gloriously tribal coming together of a fan base in somewhere like Seattle or Kansas City, where the 12th man rock the house and are rewarded with either a forced timeout or delay of game penalty is a thing to behold. Other chants commonly used and that should be mastered are “Let’s go *insert team name here*” (or “here we go” in the case of Pittsburgh), “USA-USA” (normally after the national anthem or something equally patriotic) and “Yo! Beer guy! Over here!” (self-explanatory).
3) American fans are strategically aware at all times
As mentioned in point 2, NFL fans tend to get loud when the other team are on the attack and likewise get appropriately quiet when their offense is on the field, mindful of helping their signal caller communicate effectively. This awareness extends to the scoreboard operators, who will assist with well-timed graphics in order to irk the opponents and rally the home fans. As important during a three plus hour game where a few beers may be consumed, US fans also have an awareness of optimum toilet break windows (NEVER at the end of a quarter or a half, btw). Being British I did not possess this skill. Such was the extent that my team scored while I was visiting the gents that people used to PAY me just to stay in the bathroom.
4) There is no away section
One of the things most bemusing for many British fans used to rigid segregation at sporting events is that no such divide exists in the NFL. If you want to see your team away, they’ll let you sit anywhere. You’ll see swathes of Terrible Towels waving whenever the Steelers are on the road or and an array of cheese heads at a Packers away game. And as unthinkable as this mingling is to many of us, it for the most part works. Yes, it does lead to some friction and yes, some fans can cross the line, but for the most part it leads to good-natured banter (with perhaps some of those “SUCKS” comments mentioned in point 1). This display of tolerance and understanding is a hugely positive reflection on the league and its fans, showing you can display pride in your team and rivalry with your opponent without being separated into adjacent sections (England and Russia, please take note).
5) American fans savour the whole day, not just the game
NFL fans get 8 regular season home games a year and by God, they like to make the most of it. One of the first things I was taught was that game day doesn’t start at the pub an hour before kick off – it starts in a car park 4 hours before. Tailgating is a masterly invention allowing fans to come together over a hot grill, enjoy local barbecued delicacies and raise several toasts to their team prior to entering the stadium. If you’re British and serious about your American football, you’ll likely be met with stares of incredulity as you rant on about why the QB can’t be blamed for his lack of blind side protection or why your team lack the personnel to operate an effective cover 2 defense, but pretty soon the locals will get used to the accent long enough to tell you you’re talking crap and here’s why. Many fans will also meet up in the car park after the game for a post-mortem or celebratory drink and the feeling of togetherness engendered by an NFL game is difficult to find anywhere else.
So if you are a British fan thinking of going to a game, then I’d encourage you to get over there at your earliest opportunity. Having seen some Brits try to introduce time-honoured traditions such as celery throwing (moderate success) and themed singing (no success, see above), my advice would be to do as the locals do – chant (LOUDLY), eat, drink, talk football and strategically pee – and you’ll be just fine.
Ben Mortimer spent 10 years living in Baltimore running a travel company, developing an unhealthy obsession with American football in the process. Now back in the UK, Ben owns MVP Travel, which specialises in US Sports trips. Their NFL packages focus on the game day experience (including tailgates) and they can be found on the web at www.touchdowntrips.com