Going on the road to watch your team in the NFL is a strange thing.
As with all the major sports in the USA, the distance between each team can be anything from sharing the same stadium, to travelling almost 3,000 miles across a single country and multiple states.
But the main difference is that the NFL is king in America, and travelling to see your team play away from home is more like a pilgrimage; it’s taken very seriously. And I didn’t realise that fully, until I flew from London to Charlotte to see my NFL team – the Green Bay Packers – play the Carolina Panthers away from the team’s home field.
The Panthers aren’t the most storied team in the NFL, having formed as part of the League’s expansion in 1995, but its fan base are about as passionate as the rest, despite it needing a bit of growth. Bank of America Stadium is also a really cool place to catch a game, if a little generic for a downtown stadium.
It seems to suit the team, the structure is new, and exciting, but lacks any character gained from a lengthy history.
None of that mattered though, as joining the thousands of Packers fans outside – who had also travelled an incredible distance to see the team play – made Charlotte feel like the streets surrounding Lambeau Field back in Wisconsin, proving that Pack fans really know how to make anywhere in the USA feel like a home from home.
Small market, big support
“Oh yeah, if the Packers come to town it’s always the biggest game for us,” said Adrian Green, a sales assistant at a sports retail store local to Bank of America Stadium.
“They just come in droves and it’s actually a real positive for our business round here. I mean, even the Panthers’ rivalry games don’t attract the same sort of support as the Packers, wherever they play, it seems like the entire fanbase converges on the city.”
And he really wasn’t joking, as the tailgating scene surrounding the stadium was littered with people of all ages donning ‘Green and Gold’.
“Oh, it was only a 14 hour drive down,” said one Wisconsinite in a worn-out Packers jersey, while grilling a bratwurst beside his truck. “We try and do one game a year outside of Green Bay, it’s just really fun to see new places and cheer on the team as a road warrior.”
The pre-game festivities have become an essential part of every NFL gameday now, as everyone meets up and parties in the huge parking lots or bars near the stadium.
Back in Green Bay, Lambeau Field is quite segregated from the rest of Wisconsin and its major cities Madison and Milwaukee. It’s a small town, in the middle of an agrarian part of America; so gameday is a day which eight times a year, brings everyone together in celebration of the smallest market in the league.
Tailgating in the middle of a city is so different. Charlotte is very much cosmopolitan, and densely populated, so the areas where fans party are tightly packed and spread out. It didn’t detract from the experience though, as per usual, I was constantly offered all manner of food and drinks when walking around, between the various set ups soaking it all in.
“Has the game started yet?” one fan asked me. “No,” I replied. “There’s still an hour until kick-off.”
“Brilliant,” he said. “More time for beer!”
The atmosphere in the stadium was also a friendly one. Whether it’s just a ‘Southern Hospitality’ thing or not, it was really encouraging to see both Panther and Packer fans alike cheering, chatting and sharing the game experience together.
There’s no segregation in America, which to a UK fan may seem very alien, but out in the US it’s normal. I didn’t have to be quiet when the Packers scored – partly because there were so many of our fans, and partly because Panthers fans were very accommodating.
“American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture”
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shouted louder during a game, despite being surrounded by fans wearing black and blue jerseys. The Packers started strong, but played awfully after leading at the end of the first Quarter. Until the final 15 minutes of regulation, Carolina were firmly in control, leading by three scores, but the Packers battled back and made for one of the more exciting finishes to a football game I’d ever seen.
Down just one score with two minutes to go, Green Bay’s Demerious Randall intercepted Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton to give the Packers extremely favourable field position for one last shot at victory.
The section I was in erupted, with a unique mixture of groans and jubilation. I’ll never forget jumping up and down, screaming and high fiving all the fellow fans around me. What seemed like a foregone conclusion at halftime was suddenly turned on its head; I guess that’s the sort of drama which gets so many people make the trips to opposing teams’ stadiums.
In the end it wasn’t meant to be though, as the Packers turned the ball over just a few yards from the score. My team, our team, Wisconsin’s team, had lost; and it was somehow gut-wrenching, despite all of us having accepted defeat seemingly hours before the game’s conclusion.
Those of us wearing green were left with long journeys home ahead of us, including an eight-hour flight back to London for me.
But it was worth it. Seeing the NFL for what it really is behind the TV screen, and in its native country is always an incredible experience.
American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture, because it’s always such a great experience for families, as much as die-hard fans; it’s closer to Bundesliga, than it is Premier League.
“Better luck next time,” one of the Panther fans said on the way out of the stadium. “You guys are good, and we’re just riding high. See you in the playoffs hopefully? It’ll be a great game!
“Oh, and thanks for making the trip,” he added just before turning an opposite way to us onto the street outside the gates. “You guys made the atmosphere special today.”