D3D4 Columnist Darren Young compares the NFL experience to that of a third tier game in English football…
“Have A Nice Day” – Whatever The Score Is
I have been incredibly lucky in the last few weeks to be doing some work at Wembley on behalf of the NLF. As well as seeing a very, very different game to ‘English’ football, it was also fascinating to compare the whole approach to fans (or guests as they are also known; there is a clue in the name).
Wembley has hosted NFL games for 10 years now (there was an anniversary-themed thank you to staff as they arrived – more about that later) and they did a really good job. Wembley Way was very colourfully decked out in the team colours, there were things for fans to do outside the stadium, there were people saying ‘enjoy the game/have a great day’ to fans/guests at all times.
People meandered around buying drinks and American themed food. There was a mile-long queue to get merchandise and the same fans chatted, danced and sang in the hours to kick off. Very often, members of the Wembley staff were also involved; taking pictures, giving high-fives, smiling, even dancing themselves and some with eye blacks to really get into the spirit (especially on game day 2, a miserable, damp day in the capital). As I mentioned, these staff – the majority are on duty at most Wembley events – were given a badge and thanked for all their help on ARRIVAL to work that day.
Most had reacted with amazement and surprise at simply being recognised for being a part of the team, as well as their efforts. Then, throughout the build-up and the game itself, an NFL Recognition Team walked the whole stadium for several hours, handing out reward cards when they caught a staff member (or their managers) doing the right thing. Some of these cards were ‘cashed in’ for American footballs or miniature helmets afterwards. Others, for smaller acts of kindness, simply said ‘you did a great job’.
It was incredible to see such a great atmosphere, and refreshing too. After the second game, the fans of New Orleans sang a rendition of ‘when the saints go marching in’ on the way back to Wembley Central. Whilst I know the days of hearing a chant of ‘you’re gonna get your f****n’ heads kicked in’ are behind us, there was something calmer and dare I say, more sporting, about the NFL than I see at any football matches.
I recalled my only visit to the national stadium to watch my club that Walsall have afforded me (or any fan, even those who are a hundred and twenty-nine years old). Only two and half years ago, thirty-five thousand of us from the Black Country showed up (pity the team didn’t) but before, during and afterwards, there just wasn’t that feeling of care-free relaxation and enjoyment. Actually, I don’t recall anyone from Wembley really speaking to me, never mind wishing me a nice day, giving my son a pin with the Walsall emblem on it or attempting the Johnstone’s Paint equivalent of a high-five.
In fact, it was that particular match that made me resolve to never again let the football spoil what was otherwise a lovely day out in London. And by and large, I’ve tried to stick to that and attempt to savour the occasion (because that’s what any sporting event is) and remember that it’s ‘only a game’ at the end of the day.
As an antidote to all this, and in between the two NFL games, just to make sure I didn’t get too carried away with enjoying sport, I went to watch my team in a League 1 encounter with Charlton Athletic.
Now, I met my season-ticket holding Dad and Uncle outside the stadium and their seats are next to a lovely guy who I only see at Walsall matches but who instantly greets me with a huge smile, handshake and at various times during the two hours I was there, we chatted about all manner of things from the weather to the club shop policy on peeling badges. At times, we provided support to one another (as Walsall fans have to do) and told each other it would all be over soon. We also shared the surprise and delight at it being the only game Walsall haven’t given a penalty away this season.
But, family-aside, he was also the only person with whom I shared a friendly encounter. I had been into the club shop and no one spoke to me there, I’d gone through the turnstile equally quietly and when I’d got a Balti pie and chips (served as if it were a gourmet meal – thumbs up WFC!) there had been no attempt to engage me in conversation or even, God forbid, hope that I ‘enjoy the match’.
The entertainment on the pitch was actually very good that night, but I realised that as a paying ‘guest’ of the club, the sole focus was what was happening on the grass over ninety-odd minutes. Everything else was incidental. No one tried to get me to buy a shirt or even ask if I needed help in the club shop, stewards didn’t ask me what I thought of our chances and the looks I got from them were more of pity in the ‘at least we get paid to be here’ variety than anything else. Even the programme sellers didn’t bother to smile.
But it made me think. The whole football mentality is, in general, to get people to go to a game and once the match is over, get them out of there as safely and quickly as possible.
The NFL way is much broader. Getting there is just the start, the fun begins from that moment. It was a given that the fans would turn out; the whole emphasis was on making sure they had a brilliant time while they were there. And that was all of the time, not just when the game was in play. As it happened, the NFL games themselves were not, probably much to Wembley’s and the NFL’s chagrin, great entertaining spectacles and were very one-sided. I imagine, somewhere, there is an alternative Wembley where the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens are playing a game for teams that failed to show up for the big occasion, and some of Walsall’s squad from the 2015 JPT Final have hung around to watch.
But the performance on the pitch wasn’t the be all and end all. A team lost, heavily, on both occasions, but that was all that happened. No one died. All fans went home (London for most of them, I think) happy.
Most of all, it was clearly a cultural thing. And not one that has to be a ‘on US soil’ thing as the high fives around Wembley demonstrated. Whether we love or hate the ‘have a nice day’ way of doing it – and personally I love it because it’s such a nice thing to hear – the point is that, culturally, the NFL see the fan experience as their main consideration. If all goes well on the field for your team, that’s a bonus.
I think that British football, at all levels, but especially outside of the Premier League (although definitely there too) where full houses aren’t always guaranteed, could do a lot worse than look at the NFL culture and try to develop something similar. In these days where there is so much competition for the fans’ wallet, looking at ways to make the whole occasion memorable, and to focus on the fan as a guest and treat them as such, has to be the way forward.
We are in a transitional period. The days of putting our rattle back in our pocket at the final whistle and walking to the bus stop are gone. But while we aren’t yet at the stage of comparing the experience to a concert, you wonder how long it will be; for instance, how many fans now boo at half time if they haven’t been entertained enough.
I know a lot of clubs are doing more off the field these days than ever before. I know family, children and female attendance figures are rocketing but there is still a long way to go. I also know that some clubs know that some fans will always turn up (like my Dad) whatever happens and however bad the team play, but success on the pitch and trophies shouldn’t be the only consideration. After all, not everyone can finish in the top six.
A fan (new or long-suffering) deserves the best possible match day experience regardless of the score line – and because it’s the right thing to do, not because it might mean they will come back again. Of course, if they really enjoy the experience, they’ll do that anyway.
Until next time. Have a great day.