LONDON -- It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday night in London, and the Admiralty Pub is packed with orange and black.
There are Cincinnati Bengals fans all over the establishment, spilling outside onto the patio. If one didn’t know any better, they might have guessed the pub was located in Cincinnati.
The scene was the same throughout the weekend. A line wrapped around the building to get into an NFL sponsored event on Saturday, with the first fans waiting outside several hours before the event started.
In London, this is just not the norm.
Locals in London don’t flock to bars to watch American football like they might watch soccer. They certainly don’t go to the Admirality, a pub in the touristy part of London. It’s a sign of how attitudes toward the NFL are slowly starting to change as the league makes its push to increase its overseas fan base.
For years, NFL fanatics in Europe have been forced to watch games by themselves, when and wherever they can. Only recently has social media given them an outlet to find and meet up with others like them.
Paul Hirons, a lifelong resident of England, and a Bengals fan since high school, helped found Bengals UK, which started as a way to connect with other Bengals fans online, but has recently become a way for fans to gather and watch the team together in person.
Hirons, who was in attendance at the Admirality on Friday night, said actually having the Bengals around this weekend has been a ‘surreal’ experience.
“The NFL supporter experience in the UK is sometimes a lonely and disparate one, so we wanted to bring people together, as idealistic as that sounds,” Hirons wrote in an email.
Hirons, who was born in England, has been a Bengals fan for 30 years, most of those spent without a connection to the fan base.
“It was the year after the Bears’ ’85 Super Bowl win, and William Perry had become a big media star over here,” he wrote. “Subsequently, the game had begun to gain some cult appeal. A terrestrial TV channel had started to show weekly highlights, but I still didn't have a team to support.
“My new friends all supported teams like the 49ers, Dolphins and Raiders, but I didn't fancy any of them. Then, in one highlights program, I saw a southpaw quarterback with tiger stripes on his helmet (Boomer Esiason) who was slinging it all over the place. I was sold. And smitten.”
Every football fan, from college to the NFL, has a story of why he or she started supporting a particular team. In most cases, it’s the team from the city or state where they grew up, or a team their family supported.
But what if the closest NFL team was an ocean away? That’s when fans start to get creative.
Juan Iribarren, who was born in Madrid and still lives in Spain, has rooted for the Bengals since 1988, when he spotted them on TV for the first time. He remembers loving the uniform, the helmets and how they played defense. He was hooked.
These days, he watches their games on NFL GamePass. To celebrate his 40th birthday this weekend, he will travel to London to watch his first game in person.
“A friend sent me a picture ... with the match schedule,” he wrote. “He told me, 'Look, the Bengals in London the day of your birthday.' ... I started to freak out and my only obsession was to get tickets as soon as possible and convince my partner and my friends to come with me to London. A dream come true!”
Andrew Turnbull, a fan in the UK, created a “draft” to pick a team in 2012 after getting interested in the NFL via the Rich Eisen Podcast. He researched every team and whittled it down to 10 teams based on the traits he liked best.
“I’d kind of liked the Packers,” he wrote in an email. “But that was like saying you support Manchester United. Everyone does it!”
He couldn’t completely narrow down the teams, so he put them in a hat, shook it up, and drew the Bengals. He spent that night reading about their history. By the next day, he had booked his first flight out of Europe to Cincinnati. Now he’s been back twice.
“We lost, but I loved the day, and Cincinnati,” he wrote.
Aleksander Egebjerg of Denmark became fascinated with the sport when his brother picked up a copy of Madden 2002. He didn’t quite understand the appeal at first, but the more he played, the more he felt drawn to American football.
When it came time to pick a team to support, he was drawn to the Bengals because of their underdog status.
“Right around the draft in 2003, I knew the tides were changing for the Bengals with the addition of (Carson) Palmer. I played as Cincy a lot in the Madden games, because I liked the uniforms mostly,” he wrote.
Egebjerg also watches via GamePass these days.
“I haven’t missed a game since I got GamePass, and I plan my vacation days around prime time games (they play at 2.30-5.30 at night in Denmark),” he wrote. “NFL became a huge deal within my circle of friends and all of us got a favorite team and follow them closely. God bless the two mates who are Steeler fans.”
Albert Luque of Spain also found the Bengals because of Madden, as the sport was not particular popular in his area at the time. He was particularly interested in Chad Johnson and Rudi Johnson.
“I was looking for an NFL team to support and the Bengals had a running back that I liked, even if the unis were and are still horrible for my taste,” Luque wrote. “Most fans began rooting for them because of their helmets or jerseys, and I might be the only one in spite of that!”
For international fans, supporting the Bengals will never be as easy as taking a quick drive to the stadium or turning on the TV at noon that day, but that doesn’t mean they love their team any less.
“Through social media I have connected with plenty of fellow Bengals fans, including writing for fan site CincyJungle,” Luque said. “Despite the distance I can claim the Bengals as mine as any other fan's...
“The connections to other fans via (mostly) Twitter has made this fanship a pretty neat thing, despite some really tough moments like last season's wild-card loss.”