This blog post is an attempt to do the impossible. I will admit from the start that it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, yet I do believe it offers a genesis of sorts as to the real cultural differences between sports fans in America as compared to sports fans in England. This premise all started a couple of weeks ago when I pondered to a buddy via a text message why it was that NFL fans are disproportionately more delusional in their optimism toward their teams’ expectations than most English Premier League teams’ fan bases? What was the rationale? It did not make sense to me. We both obviously follow each league.
This initial text of mine came on the heels of the first week on the NFL season after watching a rather painfully boring contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens won 13-6. The game was awful. It was clear that neither team was very good and that the Bills especially were in deep trouble. It was a performance that I contend was worthy enough for Bills fans to write-off the season. Yes, even after a one game sampling. My assessment did not occur in a vacuum either, the Bills organization has not been to the playoffs since 1999- this isn’t the New England Patriots, or the Denver Broncos or the Green Bay Packers losing game # 1; three teams that have consistent track records of winning resulting in multiple playoff and super bowl appearances. The game against Baltimore showcased more of the same. Although I am not a Bills fan I pity their situation. That said, I was truly perplexed after listening to some post game sports talk radio as to how many Bills fans and sports analysts that cover the Bills spouted out that although they were discouraged with the team’s performance, they felt the playoffs were still a possibility. Certainly mathematically they are correct. One game shouldn’t define a season (talk about a coach’s cliché, right?) But did they not see the same game that I just watched? This blind optimism seemed to have crossed into the realm of delusion. Are Bills fans alone in this delusion? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I am sure every week across America during the football season similar conversations are had when bad teams continue to lose. . .”yes, it’s bad, but if X happens and then Y we can right the ship. . .become a playoff bound team” The fact is many teams have no shot at the playoffs this year after week 1. (After week 2 and now owning a 0-2 record the Bills fired their offensive coordinator Greg Roman).
You see in my opinion NFL fans are often surprised when things don’t work out with their teams, despite ample evidence to the contrary. But here’s the thing too, it is not all their fault- We, Americans are culturally wired this way. Whereas English Premier League fans on balance are culturally wired in the opposite fashion- surprised when things do work out like last year with Leicester City.
Comparing this NFL fan optimism to the fans of another professional league, the English Premier League, differences in fan mentality seem rather stark. Fan bases in the EPL are rabid and certainly can be irrational, however, they seem to be more grounded in expectations. EPL fans, outside of the Manchester Uniteds, the Arsenals, the Liverpools, the Man Cities, and the Chelseas by in large part are content to have their teams finish in the middle of the road of any season. In the NFL this is not the case. And perhaps the reason this is not the case in the NFL, as my buddy whom I was texting back and forth on this question, stated so bluntly and accurately, because of culture.
Historically in America the narrative has always been one where you are told you can be anything you want to be. . .indeed, there is a hope, there is a spirit of optimism that has been the life blood of the American people since the days of the Pilgrims. It would therefore make perfect sense then to put forth this optimism when it comes to supporting your NFL team. On the contrary, in England, historically speaking, people were told you are going to be whatever class you were born into- a broad brush assertion and generalization certainly, however, the promise of social mobility and the ability to own land/property were real reasons why Englishmen and their families came to America. It wasn’t possible for the vast majority of people at the time in England. Perhaps that outlook and societal understanding carries over to the EPL as well. Fans of teams like Hull City, Swansea City (located in Wales actually), Southampton, Watford, Stoke City and say Sunderland are not even that hopeful for a top seven spot. Instead it is an attitude of trying to remain in the middle of the pack, win your derbies (crosstown rival games) and don’t get relegated.
Now it is true that fan expectations in the EPL are perhaps wildly different than in the NFL because the leagues are set up differently. The EPL does not have playoffs, however of the twenty teams the top seven teams in a season play in European club tournaments the following season, which in my book is equivalent to making the playoffs in the NFL. The EPL does have relegation where the bottom three teams in a season drop down a league level the following season. The fact is teams in both leagues have a lot to play for each year.
Applying cultural outlook to how fans support their teams may be a stretch and may have a number of holes in its validity but I do believe correlations exist. Neither fan base is better nor worse, just different. And I for one as a fan of both leagues get to appreciate it all.