Early on Saturday morning, at midnight, a small but passionate group of fans will gather in front of our American television sets to watch Australia’s football-ruling Super Bowl Grand Final.
Something unites us – perhaps insomnia? — those who choose to embrace a sport from the other side of the world, far beyond the comfort zone of our upbringing.
But niche fans are cheering on all sorts of sports from afar as a comforting reminder of just how small the world has gotten.
“I started watching it and I really loved it,” said TJ Sherwood, a 19-year-old college student living in Tennessee.
Kind of like football freaks in England, people with a growing craving for American football, brought to the Atlantic side by huge pressure from the NFL and an increasingly diverse media landscape.
“It’s a good sport. It’s violent. It has a score,” said Joe Vincent, Welshman, who founded the Jacksonville Jaguars fan club in England. “Once you go to a game, you’re addicted.”
A lifelong football and rugby fan like many in England, Vincent first met the NFL in 1996 by playing the video game Madden. He decided to choose his favorite team.
“I was new to the sport, so I thought it was best to follow one of the new teams,” he recalled. “Carolina and Jacksonville were just getting started (a year ago), so I chose Jacksonville.”
It didn’t turn out very well.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Vincent joked. “I could have picked any team. I didn’t even know Jacksonville existed. I couldn’t tell you where it was. I could have literally chosen the Patriots.”
Still no problem. The Jaguars now see London as a second home and launched a deal in 2013 that allows them to come to England for one game each season, except for the 2020 campaign, which was marred by the pandemic.
Jacksonville will return to Wembley Stadium on October 30 to face the Broncos in one of three games set for London. Another will be held in Munich, and another in Mexico City.
Vincent has taken part in every Jags competition in London, handing over his fandom to his son Evan. Last year, the teenager picked up a game ball after upsetting the Jacksonville Dolphins. Finishing a 20-game losing streak is the highlight of the dumpster fire, with Urban Meyer serving as coach.
“My son was just born when the Jaguars played their first game in London,” Vincent said. “Now he’s 9 years old and he’s absolutely crazy for the NFL. There will be a new generation of fans from just dads who take their kids to games.”
Australian football has a much smaller impact on the American sports public, but more than 30 cities will host viewing parties for Saturday’s Grand Final, which starts at 12:35 PM on the US East Coast due to a 14-hour time difference. .
One of them will be in Rome – Georgia, which is about an hour’s drive northwest of Atlanta. The local soccer team, the Redbacks, will be set up at the Cosmic Dog Post to watch the Geelong Cats beat the Sydney Swans..
When someone asks Redbacks player Aaron Nobles to explain the rules of Aussie football, he usually responds: “If you combine rugby and football, basketball and volleyball and put it in a cricket oval, this is what you get.”
The Nobles will be watching the Grand Finale, but it won’t end after 3am and should be at work by 10am.
“Said OK. “I can deal with this.”
The time difference works much better for NFL fans on the other side of the pool.
1 o’clock NFL games on the East Coast begin at 6 p.m. in England.
“The Premier League ends at 6pm so you can move on to the NFL and take care of the rest of the evening,” Vincent said.
A student at Cleveland State Community College, Sherwood became a fan of the AFL about four years ago. Last weekend, he played his first game after joining a rookie team in Chattanooga.
Not one to follow the crowd, Sherwood has little interest in popular American games, which he calls “start-and-stop sports.” He prefers rugby and Aussie football.
“I watch sports to watch sports,” he said. “I don’t watch sports to watch commercials.”
My first encounter with Australian football came in the 1980s in the early days of ESPN, which stared Down Under in a desperate search for programming.
Playing this nonstop game on an oval field (it’s actually a cricket ground) with vicious players not wearing helmets or padding seemed so odd. What particularly amused the American fans were the referees, dressed in white jackets and wide-brimmed hats, pointing at the goal (worth six points) and the back (one point).
My reunion with Footy took place at the 2007 world aquatics championships after an hour’s train ride from Melbourne, Australia, to train American swimmers in Geelong, a modest city of roughly a quarter of a million on the Victorian coast.
Luckily the pool was in Kardinia Park, where the stadium is also home to the Cats. The team was playing what we call the pre-season game in the USA. When the job was done, there was still time to catch the match.
The game was exciting, even with little idea of what was really going on. Fortunately, there were plenty of gracious admirers willing to teach a rudimentary lesson or two. And when the final horn sounded, the Cats’ hockey but cute theme song “We Are Geelong (the biggest team)” blasted through the loudspeaker.
I was connected.
Back in America, I followed the Cats religiously that season, surprisingly rushing to the first Australian Football League premieres since 1963, the year I was born.
Although they haven’t won all of them since 2011, Geelong have remained a power club, winning a trip to the finals (known as the playoffs in the US) in 15 of the last 16 seasons.
On Saturday, before nearly 100,000 on the sacred Melbourne Cricket Ground, they will attempt to end the title drought against the Swans.
I will watch it in America.
I will not be alone.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963.
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