Choosing Sides

So you want to watch the NFL? Well you’re gonna need to pick a side…

The easiest way to get into any sport is to watch it being played and the most enjoyable way to watch sport is to have an attachment to a team and follow them, enjoy watching them play and therefore pick up on the game through that enjoyment. Usually your allegiance to a sports team is geographically based, you support the local side because they represent the town or area which you are a part of or originally from, at the heart of it there is a tribal nature to it and is out of your control so that you have a loyalty and a love for that team no matter what. With American Football most of us in the British Isles do not have that geographical link to a team and therefore have to make a conscious decision of who to support. This is a tough decision and an important one, if you’re struggling then hopefully this article will help.

Firstly I’ll give you some background of my path to being a fan of the New York Giants. As a Manxman born and bred I have no geographical connection to anywhere in the USA and I have never visited New York, in fact when I adopted the Giants as my team I had not been anywhere in the US. My first exposure to the NFL was in the 1980’s watching Channel 4’s Saturday morning highlights presented by Gary Imlach, where I saw Dan Marino be the best Quarterback to never win a ring. I had an interest in the Miami Dolphins because of Dan Marino but it didn’t survive my 10+ year absence of NFL exposure once Channel 4 stopped their coverage. When I regained my knowledge of the NFL through my best friend’s N64 Madden games and Sky subscription in the late 90’s Dan Marino was on his way out of the sport and I had no real affection for the team, I didn’t feel as though I was changing allegiance at all. For a couple of years I followed no team as such, my friend was a Patriots fan so I watched them a few times and knew their players well but held no affinity to them myself. Eventually I found myself watching a program about the New York Giants 2000 season where they lost to the Ravens in the Superbowl. I really liked the story of Kerry Collins getting his career back on track after off the field problems and Jim Fassel’s infamous playoff guarantee. Plus they played in blue, I like blue. Now I couldn’t imagine changing allegiances to another team, I have a soft spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a few fantasy team picks and Brett Kiesel’s giant beard at Wembley the other year but the New York Giants are in my heart.

Ok so there are a few main factors that go into your team of choice;

First Contact

A lot of people follow the first team they watch, usually the Superbowl that year. It makes perfect sense when watching a neutral game to choose a team to root for, it makes things a lot more engaging and interesting. If this blossoms into a longer term association with the team then this is great however don’t feel bound to your first team, if after a few games or a season you’re not fussed watching the games or find yourself looking for another teams results then follow that instinct.

City Links

Steve from the podcast is an Eagles fan because he has family that lives in Philadelphia, that’s his story anyways.  I know plenty of people who have been on holiday to a city and started following the sports team from there, although New York or San Francisco are perhaps more common holiday destinations than Green Bay in all fairness. I also know a lad who got into Ice Hockey at first following the Tampa Bay Rays and subsequently adopted the NFL franchise from the same city as well, unfortunately for him this was the Buccaneers. Having that personal exposure to the city is a great way to identify with a team and build in the chance to get to see a live game some time, just be aware that a franchise isn’t tied to a city like football teams in the UK so if you’ve spent a lot of time in Oakland recently you might want to broaden your choice of team horizons a little bit.

Appearance

Ok so I joked that my reasoning for choosing the Giants was in part because of the colour blue but as you’re probably going to be wearing a replica jersey at some stage it’s probably best not to follow a team that wears a colour you absolutely despise. As an Everton fan it was never going to be likely that I’d start supporting a team that wears red. I’ll also stick the franchise name under the appearance banner, it’s more likely to be used when describing which team you’re a fan of and is certainly something people identify with. My ex-girlfriend started to follow the Vikings based almost solely on the name and logo of a Viking, it seemed a silly way of choosing at the time but 10 years later she dragged me to Wembley to watch them play so it worked for her.

Players

This is a bit of a chicken or egg situation as often you will be following a team first and get to know the players rather than the other way round but if you have a passing interest in a few teams a star player or someone with personality may well swing your interest towards (or away from) a team. The NFL certainly has its fair share of characters and because of the much higher levels of media exposure and highly aggressive nature of the sport you get to see a lot more “outbursts” than you will be used to watching the Premiership. One of the first players I really saw a lot of was Jeremy Shockey when he was drafted by the Giants in 2002, he was a brash character, big physical presence on the field and loud mouthed off it – I loved him! Sadly in 2008 Shockey had become more trouble than he was worth and left the Giants, I always kept a soft spot for him but I never changed team allegiances with him.

Fantasy

Leading nicely on from players, with a segue Paul “Silky Smooth” Nicholson would be proud of, is the joy of Fantasy Football. If you start playing fantasy football you can easily develop an attachment to a player and by association the team he plays for, Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart put the Steelers into my sphere of interest that way. The main downside to this for a rookie to the sport of the NFL is of course that you don’t know enough about the sport to really pick your team, that does depend a lot on the type of league you play in though as NFLUK have a very good fantasy league that is easily accessible to a new player and allows you to change your team every week so you won’t get lumbered with your mistakes for long but you might find a go to player every week that you become a fan of.

Style

A lot of the NFL franchises have a distinct personality in how they act and how they play football, this comes from a variety of reasons such as the owner of the franchise or the coaching staff or based on the history of the franchise in success or defeat. Pittsburgh have a reputation for being a traditional old school type of football team, often picking players who are tough and uncompromising and favouring a solid defence over high scoring. The Cowboys are self-proclaimed as “Americas Team” and through their history and owner Jerry Jones have an arrogant swagger about the franchise both on and off the field. The Raiders used to have a very strong rebellious personality stemming from long time owner Al Davis, his motto was “Just win baby”, and that attitude of win whatever it takes was a cornerstone of the franchise in the 1970’s.

Success

The final factor and arguably the most controversial one, who wants to be labelled as a gloryhunter after all? Growing up in the Isle of Man I am very aware of this phenomenon, we have no “local” team in the context of top tier football so the vast majority of my friends grew up as fans of the team that was most successful at the period they got into football. It’s an obvious and understandable attraction to start following a successful team or rather it is not very appealing to start following a team that is losing all the time or is the laughing stock of the league. However unlike football where money can buy success and it seems like the same few elite clubs win all the trophies year after year the salary cap and draft system in the NFL means that being the worst team one year can lead to success, the New York Giants in 2004 were the second worst team in football but just 4 years later were the superbowl champions. Also while the Patriots have been remarkably successful for a number of years this is not universally true so just because you’re jumping on a winning bandwagon this year it doesn’t necessarily translate to being a fan of a winning side for years to come.

Final words of advice?

Ultimately you’ve got to watch some football and find out which teams appeal to you the most, this will sound hokey but you’ve got to listen to your heart on this more than your head even if that means supporting a rubbish team in a horrible coloured uniform with a stupid nickname……. Yes….. you might end up supporting the Cleveland Browns.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 21:  A trainer tends to Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns after he was imjured during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)