British sports fans are a serious bunch. When it comes to football (they never call it soccer), many would rather lose their home than miss their team score a winning goal. Club allegiance is often demonstrated with tribal passion – influencing tattoos, clothing and even choice of marital partners.
When American football makes a rare appearance in London, it’s somewhat of a surprise to see the seriousness of the sport replaced with a more frivolous obsession: cheerleaders.
That’s not to say British fans have no interest in the sport. When the Chicago Bears took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a showcase game at Wembley Stadium in October, I spoke to plenty of Brits among the American expats paying homage to their national sport. Many professed as much fanaticism as the American supporters who had traveled from the States specifically to see their team.
But as a photographer who had covered both kinds of football matches on either side of the Atlantic and grown to love both sports, it’s hard to ignore a few major differences in the fan experience.
Firstly, there’s the food. Growing up in the States, some of my earliest football memories are of the chow served up at games. When I was about 10 years old, my dad would take us to the old Met Stadium to see the Minnesota Vikings Play. We would wade through a sea of purple and gold jerseys to our seats, wipe off the snow and start hailing food vendors. They sold us hot dogs, soda pop, peanuts, hot chocolate, popcorn and if I was lucky, a jumbo box of Milk Duds.
There weren’t many attempts to evoke this at Wembley where fans were encouraged to tuck into a resolutely un-American menu of “British fish and chips.” Hamburgers were available, but advertised on a Union Jack billboard as “British beefburger and chips.”
And then there’s the cheerleaders. When I worked in the States, I barely gave the cheerleaders a second glance. Even though my male colleagues may have ogled them, cheerleader photos would rarely make it into the sports pages. But for British photographers raised in the serious world of Premier League soccer, cheerleaders are an exotic sight.
One colleague working for a national newspaper told me that he had been sent to the Wembley game specifically to shoot the cheerleaders. He wasn’t expected to shoot any sporting action. Knowing the British papers would feature the scantily clad gals in the next day’s papers quite prominently, I too turned my lens toward them, wondering what my colleagues back in the U.S. would think of my photos.
There was, however, plenty of action on the field (not including the surprise appearance of a plucky squirrel and a topless male pitch invader). Fans and photographers alike were rewarded with plenty of plays, touchdowns and goals as the Bears secured a 24-18 victory.
In terms of coverage from the British media, both teams were roundly beaten by the cheerleaders.