Away games. Hmmm. For a resident of these isles who may follow a UK soccer team, the phrase may conjure up images of early starts, crowded buses/trains, being herded – sorry – directed by police/stewards into your end of the ground following an awkward hour in a boozer down the road you’d been assured was ‘away fan friendly’ but made you feel like one of the lads visiting The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London. After an overpriced halftime pie and pint, you are then similarly herded out at full time past baying home fans to the station/coach to return from whence you came. Hopefully your team won.
Across the Atlantic an away game – or road game as most fans call them – is somewhat different. Because of the geographic expanse that the National Football League covers, an away trip can often mean travelling hundreds of miles. Equally, NFL fans tend to treat game day with a little more reverence than we do in the UK. With just 16 regular season games per year, it is an experience to be savoured and the build-up is nearly as important as the game itself (or in some cases more important if your team is sucking that season). UK NFL fans have got a taster of this since the league started bringing over regular season games to Wembley, with its food stalls and vendors, together with the wide cross section of different teams’ fans creating a carnival atmosphere. But to get the authentic, immersive experience, America’s where it’s at.
As a Brit who converted to NFL fandom at an early stage in my residence there, I was lucky to enjoy 8 seasons of road tripping. With the diverse selection of cities available to catch a game, each one offers unique characteristics and local customs that differentiate it from another and all of them are worth a visit at some point. But to the neutral or time-challenged fan – here are five that in my view you HAVE to experience.
New Orleans (New Orleans Saints)
There is no other city in America that comes close to the Big Easy in terms of an out-and-out party town. New Orleans was FOUNDED on non-stop celebration – from Mardi Gras to Halloween, even the funerals are upbeat. NOLA’s French Quarter is a hive of diverse eateries, bars and historical sites. The smell of Cajun cooking fills the air and shrimp poboys, crawfish etouffee and spicy jambalaya are among the local delights you can tuck into. And then there are the libations – with absinthe being a local favourite, as well as the ever-popular Hurricane which, despite its fruity flavour, should carry a government health warning.
The Saints inhabit the Mercedes Benz Superdome and provide the beating heart of the city during the NFL season. With loud, proud black and gold clad fans, the venue provides a party atmosphere in keeping with the rest of the town and, as the stadium is within easy walking distance of Bourbon Street, there’s plenty of scope to enjoy pre and post-game festivities with local fans.
Baltimore (Baltimore Ravens)
If you’re looking for a downtown game day experience where everything is within walking distance, then look no further than Charm City. M&T Bank Stadium is a 10 minute walk from the city’s iconic Inner Harbor and forms a sporting Mecca for its team’s fans to congregate. This town does tailgating and does it well, with thousands lining the stadium’s peripheral parking lots and open spaces with barbecues, coolers and large slabs of meat.
Baltimore also provides plenty to see and do for any visiting fan. The aforementioned Inner Harbor plays host to an array of restaurants, shops and attractions and it’s well worth a visit to the neighbourhoods of Fell’s Point, Federal Hill and Mount Vernon where you’ll find eclectic bars and shops and plenty of places to eat steamed crabs washed down with a bottle of Natty Boh beer.
Nashville (Tennessee Titans)
Nashville is home to some of the friendliest fans in the NFL. Titans fans exude southern hospitality and are proud of their team and their home town. Music City is chock-full of places where you can grab a beer and a great live music performance. Food-wise, Nashville is a barbecue haven. This isn’t your Uncle Dave’s burgers and sausages – this is slow smoked ribs, pulled pork, brisket and all that other good stuff, done the authentically southern way.
Nissan Stadium is a leisurely stroll over the river from all the downtown bars and restaurants and is an excellent place to enjoy an NFL game. An outdoor venue, the home fans give as good as they get but visiting fans are treated with respect and grudgingly permitted to root for their team, provided they don’t go over the top!
Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Pittsburghers love their Steelers and they love to party. The Steel City is the embodiment of a gritty NFL town filled with passionate fans who like to share their passion with others. The city has a thriving downtown area with plenty of places to grab a drink and a bite during your stay. Of the local delicacies, the Primanti Brothers sandwiches – stuffed with meat, coleslaw AND fries – have to be tried.
Heinz Field sits perched on the banks of the Allegheny River (actually at the confluence of three rivers) which produces wicked winds that have been known to confound kickers. The open ended nature of the stadium gives it a unique feel and appearance. Its Great Hall – a kind of hall of fame filled with memorabilia on the east side of the stadium – is also widely considered the best concourse in the NFL.
Boston and Providence (New England Patriots)
OK, so I’m kind of cheating with this as I’m naming two cities here. But Gillette Stadium sits pretty much slap bang in the middle and affords the opportunity to explore two towns while visiting one of the most iconic new(ish) stadiums in the NFL. Of course Boston, with its gorgeous harbour, rich history, vibrant nightlife and general Boston-ness is a great stop-off for any NFL fan, or tourist in general, with loads to see and do. Providence has a different vibe but is picturesque and also full of potential activities to undertake, with a slower pace than Beantown.
Gillette sits in Foxboro and is adorned by Patriot Place, the all singing, all dancing Pats fan zone to do your shopping and grab a beer or two. The parking lots are full of tailgaters, who while keen to remind you that Tom Brady is God, are also happy to share a beverage with opposing fans in the Massachusetts countryside before embarking on their bi-weekly pilgrimage into a truly impressive stadium with excellent site lines and facilities (a stark change from the old Foxboro).
Aside from these five great football towns, every NFL city brings its own unique experience. Have you travelled to America and sat as the lone opposing fan in a home stadium? Have another city that is your favourite football must-visit? Share with us your story in the comments section below and feel free to share our list with your friends.