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, Australia’s Super Bowl that rules football.
Something unites those of us — insomnia, perhaps? — who choose to adopt a sport from the other side of the planet, one that is far beyond the comfort zone of our upbringing.
But niche fans cheer for all kinds of sports from afar, a comforting reminder of how much the world is shrinking.
“I started watching and I really like it,” said TJ Sherwood, a 19-year-old college student in Tennessee who is also a fan of footy.
Somewhat like the people of soccer-mad Britain, who increasingly crave the American brand of soccer, they came to their side of the Atlantic with a big push from the NFL and an increasingly diverse media landscape.
“It’s a good sport. It has violence. He’s scored,” said Joe Vincent, a Welshman who started the Jacksonville Jaguars fan club in Britain. “Once you go to a game, you’re hooked.”
Vincent, a lifelong football and rugby fan like so many in Britain, was first exposed to 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 was best to follow one of the new teams,” he recalls. “Carolina and Jacksonville had just started (the year before), so I chose Jacksonville.”
Well, that didn’t work out so well.
“It’s kind of disappointing,” Vincent said. “I could pick 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 does not matter. The Jaguars now consider London a second home, starting a deal in 2013 that brought them to Britain for one game every season, except for the 2020 campaign marred by the pandemic.
Jacksonville will return to Wembley Stadium on October 30 to face the Broncos in one of three games scheduled for London. Another will be held in Munich and another in Mexico City.
Vincent has competed in every Jags competition in London, passing on his fandom to his son Evan. Last year the junior collected a game ball after Jacksonville upset the Dolphins to end a 20-game losing streak, the culmination of Urban Meyer’s firestorm of a coaching tenure.
“My son was a newborn when the Jaguars played their first game in London,” Vincent said. “He’s 9 now and he’s crazy about the NFL. There will be a new generation of fans just made up of dads taking their kids to the games.”
Australian rules football has far less influence on American sports audiences, but more than 30 cities are set to host parties for Saturday’s Grand Final, which kicks off at 12.35am. 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 northwest of Atlanta. Local footy team the Redbacks will set up shop at the Cosmic Dog Outpost to watch the Geelong Cats take on the Sydney Swans.
When Redbacks player Aaron Nobles is asked to explain Australian rules football, he usually replies: “If you combine rugby and football, basketball and volleyball and put it on a cricket oval, that’s what you get.”
The Nobles will watch the Grand Final, even though it will finish after 3am and they have to be at work by 10am.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can deal with it.”
The time difference works much better for NFL fans across the pond.
NFL games at 1pm on the East Coast start at 6pm in the UK.
“The Premier League finishes at 6pm so you can switch to the NFL and cover 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 a new team in Chattanooga.
Not following the crowd, Sherwood has little interest in popular American games, which he calls “start and stop sports.” He prefers rugby and the Aussies rule football.
“I watch sports to watch sports,” he said. “I don’t watch sports to watch commercials.”
My first exposure to Australian footy came in the 1980s during the early days of ESPN, which was looking Down Under in its desperate search for programming.
It looked so strange, this non-stop game played on an oval pitch (actually, it’s a cricket pitch) with tough players wearing no helmets or pads. Of particular amusement to American fans were the referees, dressed in white jackets and wide-brimmed hats, who signaled for goals (worth six points) and backs (a single point).
My reconnection with footy came during the 2007 world aquatics championships after an hour-long train ride from Melbourne, Australia, to interview American swimmers training in Geelong, a low-key city of about a quarter of a million length of the Victorian coast.
As luck would have it, the pool was at Kardinia Park, also the site of the Cats’ home ground. The team happened to be playing what we in the US call a practice game. When the work was done, there was still time to catch the match.
The game was exciting, even with a minimal idea of what was actually going on. Fortunately, there were plenty of kind fans willing to impart a rudimentary lesson or two. And when the final horn sounded, the megaphone blared the hokey but endearing Cats theme song, “We Are Geelong (the greatest team of all).
I was stuck.
Back in the States, I followed the Cats religiously that season as they surprisingly cruised to their first Australian Football League premiership since 1963, the year I was born.
Geelong has remained a powerhouse club, earning a trip to the finals (known in the US as the play-offs) for 15 of the last 16 seasons, although they haven’t won them all since 2011.
On Saturday, in front of around 100,000 at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, they will look to snap their title drought against the Swans.
I will watch in America.
I won’t 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
More AP Sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports