Column: Footy, anyone? Niche fans cheer the sport from afar

Early Saturday morning, at half past midnight, a small but passionate group of fans will gather in front of our American TVs to watch the Grand Final, the Super Bowl of Australian football.

Something unites these of us – insomnia, perhaps? — who choose to embrace a sport on the other side of the globe that is far beyond the comfort zone of our upbringing.

But niche fans enjoy all kinds of sports from afar, a comforting reminder of how much the world is shrinking.

“I started watching and I really love it,” said TJ Sherwood, a 19-year-old Tennessee student who is also an Infantry fan.

Kind of like the people in soccer-mad Britain who have a growing yearning for the American brand of soccer, brought over from their side of the Atlantic with a big push from the NFL and an increasingly diverse media landscape.

“It’s a good sport. There is violence. There are points,” said Joe Vincent, a Welshman who started the Jacksonville Jaguars fan club in the UK. “Once you go to a game, you’re hooked.”

Vincent, a lifelong football and rugby fan like so many people in Britain, got his first taste of the NFL by playing the video game Madden in 1996. He decided to pick a favorite team.

“I was new to the sport, so I thought it would be best to follow one of the new teams,” he recalled. “Carolina and Jacksonville had just started (the year before), so I picked Jacksonville.”

Well, that didn’t work out so well.

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

That’s OK though. The Jaguars now consider London a second home, launching a deal in 2013 that has brought them to Britain for a game every season except for the pandemic-marred 2020 campaign.

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, another in Mexico City.

Vincent has been to every Jags game in London, passing on his fandom to his son Evan. Last year, the youngster collected a game ball after Jacksonville upset the Dolphins to end a 20-game losing streak, the highlight of Urban Meyer’s dumpster fire as a coach.

“My son was a newborn when the Jaguars played their first game in London,” Vincent said. “Now he’s 9 years old and he’s absolutely crazy about the NFL. There will be a new generation of fans just from the dads who take their kids to the games.”

Australian rules football has a much smaller influence on American sports audiences, but more than 30 cities will host viewing parties for Saturday’s grand final, which kicks off at 12:35am on the US east coast due to a 14-hour time difference in the time .

One of them will be in Rome, Georgia, about an hour’s drive northwest of Atlanta. Local football team the Redbacks will take up residence at the Cosmic Dog Outpost to watch the Geelong Cats take on the Sydney Swans.

When someone asks Redbacks player Aaron Nobles to explain the rules of Australian rules football, he usually gives this answer: “If you combine rugby, football, basketball and volleyball and put it on a cricket oval, this is what you have.”

Nobles will be watching the Grand Final, although it won’t finish until 3am and he has to be at work at 10am.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I can handle this.”

The time difference works much better for NFL fans across the pond.

East Coast NFL games kick off at 6pm in the UK.

“The major leagues end at 6 o’clock at night, so you can go to the NFL and have the rest of the evening,” Vincent said.

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

Not one to follow the crowd, Sherwood doesn’t care much for popular American games, which he calls “start-and-stop sports.” He prefers rugby and Australian football.

“I watch sports to watch sports,” he said. “I don’t watch sports to watch commercials.”

My first exposure to Australian football came in the 1980s during the early days of ESPN looking Down Under in its desperate search for programming.

It looked so strange, this non-stop game played on an oval pitch (it’s actually a cricket pitch) with rough players wearing no helmets or a bit of padding. Particularly amusing to American fans were the referees, dressed in white jackets and wide-brimmed hats, who signaled goals (worth six points) and bums (one point).

My encounter with Footy came during the 2007 World Aquatics Championships after an hour’s train ride from Melbourne, Australia, to interview American swimmers training in Geelong, a simple city of about a quarter of a million on Victoria’s coast.

As luck would have it, the pool was at Cardinia Park, also on the site of the stadium that is home to the Cats. The team happened to be playing what we in the US call a preseason game. When the job was done, there was still time to catch the match.

The game was exciting, even with only a scant idea of ​​what was actually going on. Fortunately, there were plenty of kind fans willing to provide a basic lesson or two. And as the final horn sounded, the loud speaker blared the cats’ hokey but endearing theme song “We Are Geelong (The Greatest Team Ever)”.

I was hooked.

Back in the States, I followed the Cats religiously that season as they amazingly rose to their first Australian Football League premiership since 1963, the year I was born.

Geelong remain a powerhouse club, earning a trip to the finals (known in the US as the play-offs) in 15 of the last 16 seasons, although they haven’t won it all since 2011.

On Saturday, in front of around 100,000 at the floodlit Melbourne Cricket Ground, they will look to end their title drought against the Swans.

I will watch in America.

I won’t be alone.

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Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Email him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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