“It is all about the fans!” roared one of the many pitchside guests during one break in play midway through the first quarter of the NFL’s first game on these shores since the autumn of 2019.
It turned out to be a prescient statement, for, as had become the unwanted fashion before the pandemic, this was a London Series game that delivered bags of spectacle but little of substance.
There were moments in the Atlanta Falcons’ 27-20 victory over the New York Jets to excite, even some of near-jeopardy, but nothing significant enough to lift the narrative above its pre-match reality.
This was a game between two of the league’s worst teams from last year, who had so far shown little to suggest they will be markedly better this time around and already, less than a quarter of the way into the campaign, had progression rather than the postseason as their primary goal.
The 60,000 flocking to north London, of course, knew all of this and while the collective catharsis felt at many sports’ post-pandemic rebirths over the summer was understandably less prevalent given the way full stadia have, blessedly, become a common sight once more, the afternoon certainly began with a celebratory buzz.
A spectacular flypast that brought a sparkling rendition of the American national anthem — sung from the roof of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — brought things to a rousing climax.
The ground, as it had in its debut run of games two years ago, looked the part, feeling every bit the specialist venue it was purpose-built to be and ensuring that Wembley’s first ever absence from the International Series fixture list will not be keenly felt.
English football’s national stadium, for all its history and global resonance, will never be more than a fine hotel for its American counterpart, while Spurs already feels like the NFL’s rather luxurious transatlantic holiday home, a dazzling abode lifted out of the Hamptons or Santa Monica’s beachfront and planted at the end of Tottenham High Road.
British fans may not have a franchise of their own to unite behind — and nor are they likely to any time soon — but this place has quickly become a source of collective pride. On the Tube up, one English fan could be heard chewing the ears off an American couple as he extolled its virtues.
The more important guests were taken, too. Falcons head coach Arthur Smith called it a “spectacular”, “big-time stadium”, while his quarterback Matt Ryan was equally impressed with the arena, calling it “beautiful”, and the pre-game crescendo. “Those planes were tight to the stadium,” he said. “That got my juices flowing.” But, like a trip to a certain newly-opened, much-ridiculed steakhouse across town from here, the occasion could only do so much to mask the inadequacy of the fare.
The game appeared all but over as a contest by half-time as the Falcons led 20-3. Though New York rallied briefly at either end of a largely forgettable second half, rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and his infantile offense were so erratic that even when they briefly pulled within three points in the fourth quarter, you never fancied them to complete the comeback — which, when you are playing Atlanta, is saying something.
Next weekend’s meeting of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins will pit another pair of poor teams against one another, the 11th time in what will be the 30-game history of the London Series that two teams with losing records will have faced off. There has still never been a match played in the capital between two teams with winning ones.
Fans will dress, as always, in the jerseys of just about all of the league’s 32 franchises, making clear that the teams have never been the main draw. Nor, given the scarcity of the fixtures, are they likely to become push factors, no matter how bad they get.
But that is besides the point. The NFL are bullish in their evaluation of themselves as a business, as well as a sporting, behemoth. Though its international customers keep coming back, it is not exporting anything like its best product.