The Bengals are headed to the United Kingdom this October, where they’ll play the Washington Redskins at Wembley Stadium in London. That’s as good an excuse as any for Bengals fans to take a trip across the pond.
While there are many resources to help you plan a trip to London — Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Google — I wanted to get the fan perspective of what Cincinnatians might experience during their first NFL game in London.
I found three British NFL fans to offer up insights and help their American cousins have the best time possible.
Be careful where you stay
Tim Knowles lives near London and works in the compliance business. I’d asked him months before what compliance was, and asked again as we sat having coffee in the ExCel London convention center. Tim laughed and brushed off the question: “It’s not something you have in the States.”
I first met Tim over Twitter. He and his friend, Tom New, have a podcast for British NFL fans, Tim and Tom NFL. They asked me to do caricatures of them for their Twitter avatar.
Tim’s a Bengals fan, and his wife, Laura, is from Loveland. The couple and their children often travel to Cincinnati to visit Laura’s family, and Tim has gone to more games at Paul Brown Stadium than I have.
Now, he wants to help fellow Bengals fans who might fly to London to see their team play at Wembley Stadium.
The one thing Tim stressed to me again and again was that people should not stay near Wembley Stadium itself.
“Wembley is out of town,” Tim said. “You know, it’s not like Paul Brown Stadium. It’s not in the densely populated, character-fueled part of London. It is the northwest. … It’s not the most glamorous part of town.”
Otherwise, you might find yourself lost, bored and far away from the action.
Cincinnatians accustomed to our mid-sized, walkable city might be thrown for a loop by the de-centralized sprawl of London. There is no “Downtown London,” and you’ll need to rely on public transportation such as the Underground.
“This town is cool,” Tim said, “but it’s big.”
As for accommodations, Tim said visitors should resist the urge to stay in hotels and inns that look like they’re out of jolly ol’ England.
“You’ll see a period building and think, ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint and British?’” he said. “Because the cost of the hotel will be cheap. It might look pretty. But it’s s***.
“Stick with the main chains,” Tim said. “Their prices are legit. The main chains are like Premier Inn, Holiday Inn, just like you guys have got. And it may sound boring. It may not have character. But you’re going to get what you know you’re going to get.”
Tim said he hopes Bengals fans who make the trip aren’t just coming over for the game. Fans should plan to arrive days before the game and stay days after, making the most of their trip to one of the world’s foremost global cities. Even better: make London just one stop on a European vacation.
“This might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” Tim said.
American football, the British way
I met Martin Matthews at Star Wars Celebration Europe, where I was helping out my friend Chris as he sold his R2-D2 art prints. Of the hundreds of people I encountered during those three days, only one was wearing a shirt with an Imperial Stormtrooper in Bengals colors.
“Who Dey!” I said.
“Who Dey!” he replied, and he gave me a high-five.
Martin had bought his shirt online from Cincy Shirts. I told him that I wore my Mr. Redlegs Stormtrooper shirt from Cincy Shirts the day before. He agreed to be interviewed.
Martin has been a Bengals fan since 1988. He watched the Super Bowl-bound team on Britain’s Channel 4 and loved the uniforms. He’s stayed a Bengals fan ever since, even through the dark times.
“I just loved everything about that team,” he said.
Martin has never been to Cincinnati, but he’s been to the U.S. and attended NFL games in both the States and in the U.K. He said Bengals fans coming to London will notice a difference in how an NFL game feels at Wembley compared to what they’re used to at home.
Take tailgating, for instance. Here, fans gather early, bring their own food and drinks and have an ad hoc party. Not so in the U.K.
“(The U.K. NFL) tries to recreate the tailgate experience,” Martin said, “but it comes off a bit fake.”
Tim said there’s a boulevard by Wembley Stadium where the NFL U.K. tailgate party is organized.
“But it is not a stadium like Paul Brown,” Tim said. “There isn’t a massive parking lot. So there isn’t the ability to tailgate independently at all.”
Although it might not have the free-wheeling feel of an American tailgate party, Martin still said the official party is “right good fun.”
There are also fan rallies leading up to the game, Tim said.
“On the Thursday or Friday before they close down Regent Street” — a major shopping and tourist area in the West End of London — “and the NFL is in town for the day. And all the fans and all the players have all their fan rally stuff, all their public speaking stuff in town.”
Because we don’t have fan rallies of that sort here in Cincinnati, I asked Tim what they were really like.
“Do you want my honest opinion? The problem is that we’re English. It’s your sport. It’s your world. And we’re going to bring a bit of it here. And we’re bringing it here, and it feels a bit tacky. It feels like we’re trying to be America for a day when we’re not. And they’re calling them ‘fan rallies,’ as if you have them all the time, and we’re just copying you and we’re not.”
Of course, the events put on by NFL U.K. are all about the experience and helping people who haven’t grown up with American football learn about the sport, said Rod Gilles.
I met Rod, like most people I met on my trip to London, at a hotel bar near the Excel London convention center. Rod is from Edinburgh, works for Heineken, and is an NFL football fan.
“There’s quite a high proportion of people who don’t know what’s going on,” he said of Brits attending the NFL festivities and games.
All three described an NFL game in Britain as akin to going to an exhibition game. There are many people there who enjoy American football to some degree, whether they’re casual fans or diehards. For many this might be the only live American football game they see. British fans will wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, regardless of whether their teams are playing that day.
“You’re going to have Bengals and Redskins fans wondering why they’re sitting next to a bunch of people in Eagles jerseys,” Rod said.
Rod said the crowds at the game can be fickle, and switch allegiance depending on who’s winning. They’ll probably be more subdued than American fans are used to, Tim said.
“You know that swell of noise on third down? And the fever pitch when you get an interception or you get a swinging, pivotal moment in the game. You won’t get that.” Tim said. “It will feel like it’s quiet.”
Tim attributes this to a lack of stakes.
“We don’t care as much for that team,” he said. “We don’t have generations of fans sitting there.”
“(The Bengals will be) the home team,” Martin said, “but they won’t have a home team advantage. It lacks the intensity of a proper home team game.”
Connect and explore
While it sounds a bit — well, foreign — Tim wants Bengals fans who might be planning a trip to know this adventure will be worthwhile.
“I’m not trying to paint a dour picture,” Tim said. “I’m trying to say that if you want to come, (fans should) get a real London experience and then do the game, that’s probably the better way to do it. Do the Saturday in London to get the real London experience and then do the game.”
Tim and Martin said American Bengals fans can find ways to connect to their Who Dey-chanting British cousins. Martin has noticed more Bengals jerseys in London, and saw many at last year’s NFL game between the Detroit Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“(The Bengals) draw a bigger fan base than they realize” in the U.K., Martin said.
Tim and Martin said the best way to connect with other Bengals fans is through Twitter. Both pointed me to the Twitter account @WhoDeyUK, which prepared a guide for Bengals fans coming to London. (Find the guide here.) Tim has been in contact with Wembley, and hopes to coordinate a way for Bengals fans to sit together at the game. He wants to put on an event for Bengals fans if he finds enough of them are traveling over for the game.
Above all, Tim stressed that while Brits will be having their own American experience with the football game, Americans should do what they can to enjoy London. Explore the city and get off the beaten path, he said. Head to Camden, avoid chain pubs, visit Hay’s Galleria. Check out Tower Bridge at night from the south side of the Thames.
“For me, at night, there’s nothing more beautiful,” Tim said.
And have a jolly good time. Cheers!
Find Tim on Twitter at @timmyknostrils
Find Tim and Tom NFL on Twitter at @TimandTomNFL, and their podcast at http://tandtnfl.podbean.com/