Column: Footy, anyone? Niche fans cheer on sports from afar

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Early Saturday morning at midnight, a small but passionate group of fans gather in front of American TVs to watch the Grand Final, the Australian-dominated soccer Super Bowl.

Something binds us together—maybe insomnia? — someone who chooses to adopt a sport from the other side of the world.

But niche fans support all kinds of sports from afar. This is a reminder of just how small the world is.

“I started watching and I really love it,” said TJ Sherwood, a 19-year-old college student from Tennessee.

It’s like football-obsessed British people with a growing appetite for US-branded football, brought to their side of the Atlantic with a big boost from the NFL and an increasingly diverse media landscape.

“It’s a good sport. It’s violent. It’s scoring,” said Joe Vincent, a Welshman who started a Jacksonville Jaguars fan club in England. “Once you’re in the game, you’re hooked.”

A lifelong football and rugby fan like many in the UK, Vincent first encountered the NFL in 1996 playing a Madden video game. He chose his favorite team.

“I was new to the sport and thought it would be best to follow one of the new teams,” he recalled. “Carolina and Jacksonville were just starting[the year before last]so I chose Jacksonville.”

Well, it didn’t work.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” Vincent quipped. “I could have picked any team. I didn’t even know Jacksonville existed. I couldn’t tell you where it was. I literally could have picked the Patriots.”

But it’s okay. The Jaguars now consider London their second home, having signed a deal in 2013 and brought them to England for games every season except for the pandemic-damaged 2020 season.

Jacksonville will return to Wembley Stadium on October 30 to face the Broncos in one of three London games. Another will be held in Munich and another in Mexico City.

Vincent has participated in every Juggs contest in London and his fandom has been passed on to his son Evan. Last year, this young man collected his balls after the next game. Jacksonville upset the dolphins to end a 20-game losing streak that was the dustbin fire highlight of Urban Meyer’s tenure as coach.

“My son was a newborn when the Jaguars played their first game in London,” said Vincent. “Now he’s nine years old and totally obsessed with the NFL. If his dad just takes the kids to the games, it will create a new generation of fans.”

Australian rules football has a much smaller impact on the American sporting scene, but the 14-hour time difference means Saturday’s Grand Finals viewing party, which starts at 12:35 a.m. on the east coast of the United States, will be held at 30:30. More cities are scheduled to host the event. .

One of them is in Rome, Georgia, about an hour’s drive northwest of Atlanta. The local soccer team, the Redbacks, is scheduled to watch the game at Cosmic Dog’s Outpost. Geelong Cats to face Sydney Swans.

When someone asks Redbacks player Aaron Nobles to explain Aussie rules football, he usually replies:

Nobles doesn’t finish until after 3am and watches the Grand Final even though he has to work at 10am.

“That’s fine,” he said. “I can handle it.”

The time difference works better for NFL fans on the other side of the pond.

A 1pm NFL game on the East Coast starts at 6pm in the UK.

“The Premier League ends at 6 p.m., so if we flick to the NFL, we’ll have the rest of the night covered,” says Vincent.

A Cleveland State Community College student, Sherwood became an AFL fan about four years ago. Last weekend, he played his first game after joining the fledgling team in Chattanooga.

Not a crowd follower, Sherwood has little interest in the popular American game, which he calls a “start-and-stop sport”. increase.

“I watch sports for the sake of watching sports,” he said. “I don’t watch sports to watch commercials.”

My first exposure to Australian football was in the early days of ESPN in the 1980s. ESPN was desperately exploring programming.

It seemed very strange, but this non-stop game was played on an oval field (actually a cricket pitch) and played by rowdy players with no helmets or padding. To the American fans’ particular delight, referees in white jackets and wide-brimmed hats signaled goals (6 points) and behinds (1 point).

The reunion with Hootie will take place at the 2007 World Aquatics Championships, after an hour’s train ride from Melbourne, Australia, to the United States training in Geelong, a modest city of about 250,000 people on the Victorian coast. Visited to interview a swimmer.

As luck would have it, the pool was in Cardinia Park, which is also the site of the stadium, home of the Cats. The team just so happened to be playing what is called a preseason game in the US. After work, I still had time to watch the game.

The game was thrilling even though I had little idea what was actually going on. Thankfully, I had many kind fans who were willing to give me an introductory lesson. And when the final horn blew, the loudspeakers blared the Cats’ snobbish but endearing theme song, “We Are Geelong (the best team of all).”

I was hooked.

Back in the US, I followed the Cats that season to their first Australian Football League premiership since 1963, the year I was born.

Geelong remain a powerhouse, having qualified for the final (known as the playoffs in the US) in 15 of the last 16 seasons, but have not won them all since 2011.

They will try to face the Swans for a title drought on Saturday before around 100,000 spectators at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Watch in America.

I’m not alone

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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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Other AP Sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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