This Sunday sees the start of the 2023 iteration of the “NFL London Games”, where three (sometimes two, sometimes four, depending on whether there’s been a pandemic or whether the organizers are feeling adventurous) regular season games are played in the capital of England. They’re weird because, on one hand, it’s very much “business as usual” for the traveling sides trying to keep their seasons together. On the other hand, however, it’s something unique. A general celebration of the sport as a whole. Yes, you have designated home and away sides, but it’s not uncommon to see the stands filled with every side in the NFL, and leagues the world over. And, this year, the Atlanta Falcons will be part of that celebration.
I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of Blogging Dirty’s reader base is US-based. From where I’m sat, it feels like there’s a bit of resentment towards the concept of these international games. It’s understandable, of course it is. The NFL season is short as it is, and, if you’re a local fan of a side giving up a home game to play in a different country, that’s got to sting a bit.
If you’re an international fan of one of those teams, however, a random week 4 match against the Jacksonville Jaguars becomes the biggest moment of the season. Take that from me; a British Atlanta Falcons fan. What you may not know is that there are more than a few of us looking forward to this. When it comes to the Falcons in Europe, we’re pretty well represented. ATL Falcons UK covers the UK, as the name suggests, and ATLFalconsGER has the German-speaking parts of the continent. So, ahead of the Falcons' third trip to London in 9 years, I spoke with them.
One of the more common questions I (and I assume other non-US Falcons fans) get is “Why the Falcons?”. Which is a fair question. When you don’t have anything obvious tying you to a certain team, why would you pick one of the worst franchises in the history of the league? For me, I took that decision before even watching a game, with family friends living out in Georgia they were the one team I’d heard of before doing any real research. What a mistake, right? Alesantoz of ATLFalconsGer, however, put in a bit more effort. “(I) have been a fan of the Falcons since 1996. The logo back then, the color combination red and black, and especially Jamal Anderson did it to me. His dirty bird dance in the end zone was special.”
For Cal Halsall and Danny Foulkes, founders of ATLFalconsUK, fate intervened. "Danny and I did several quizzes on who to follow. The Falcons came up over and over again. So it had to be. It went heavily downhill after this, but we are still here!"
Professional sport is a social, communal experience. That’s easy to partake in when you’re watching your local soccer team, but less so when following a side based about 5,000 miles away. Fortunately, in that regard, the internet has developed enough since the mid-90s to help shrink the world a little. Connecting with people with the same interests as you is easier now than it’s ever been. That online experience began for the UK boys only a few years ago. "(In) the middle of COVID, we decided we wanted to find a way to interact with other Falcons fans. It didn't seem there was loads about, but in such a short time it kinda blew up. We started shows and podcasts, and spoke to people we never thought we would have. It's been great. We are definitely in it all together and it's been great to speak to so many other people, and especially other Falcons fans in the UK. (We've) made some friends for life."
Alesantoz's journey started in 2013, by joining a closed group on Facebook. Game threads and live watchalongs ensued, with pre and post match discussions tied in, but the urge to branch out beyond the closed group kicked in.
“I sat down and had our logo created. I installed Twitter and Instagram. Built a website, hired a store for merch, and started to produce more content through our blog, which I made public. My goal now was to reach all the "lonely Falcons souls" in the German-speaking world.” As with every new venture, it took a little time to gain traction. In 2020, however, it blew up. “Footballerei interviewed me on YouTube on the topic of "Fascination Atlanta Falcons". From then on I knew I also needed YouTube, and I needed a podcast. Over 130 shows, our "TalkUP!” podcast is now known and established in the German fan scene.”
Making waves abroad
ATLFalconssGER’s rise in popularity wasn’t limited to Germany, however. A group trip to the States for a few games last season saw them appear in the sights of Atlanta as a whole. Vice President of Football Operations, David Bassity, sat down with the group for a couple of years. FOX5 Atlanta ran a segment on them, and Vice President of AMBSE, Steve Cannon, even welcomed them to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. More than those experiences was the reaction from the local community. “What pleased me the most was the overwhelming reaction of the fans. On social media and especially in Real Life. I was approached directly on the street and people were just excited and super into it.”
Earlier this year, of course, the Atlanta Falcons were awarded the German market, which was obviously huge for Falcons fans in Germany, and Europe in general. Germany is, effectively, the international home of the Atlanta Falcons. “The contact to the Falcons is now a WhatsApp away. We could only dream of that back then. Now it's real and we're really very proud of it.” A live watch-a-long of the season opener vs. the Panthers took place only a few weeks ago. We’re likely a handful of seasons, if that, from the Falcons playing a game in Germany.
The German Falcons aren't the only group making waves stateside. During the Falcons last visit in 2021, FOX5 got their hands on ATLFalconsUK as part of their build up. "I was interviewed by Justin before the last London game. I got messages from my family and friends in ATL asking me what the f*** I was doing on the news!"
We're the famous Atlanta Falcons and we're going to Wembley
Turning our attention to Sunday, it would appear that Alesantoz and the crew are a group in demand. “I have actually received a few requests, all of which I will gladly attend to.”, he tells me. If you’re wondering about the spots to hit up over the weekend: The Admirality pub on Trafalgar Square will have Freddie Falcon and Brian Finneran on the Saturday night, and The Green Man pub near Wembley will be filled with Falcons fans who plan to march to the ground together before kick-off.
Most important is the connection fans can make over the weekend. “In 2021 (...) almost 70-80 other fans from the community (were) in the group. I really want to repeat that this year and have a huge celebration with our people. Especially with the fans from ATL, with whom I am already connecting.”
The Falcons are currently 1-1 in London, a record Alesantoz shares having attended both fixtures in England. Can the Falcons improve on that this weekend? “I think we can beat the Jaguars. Detroit, as probably the strongest opponent in the schedule, fortunately, showed us early in the season what we need to improve on.”
And what do the Brits think? "My concern lies in the O-Line. It could be a slippery slope for Desond’s confidence if the 'line continues to let him down, and affect his decision-making. We're facing another team that has the ability to limit the run game, However, their pass rush isn’t all that, so it’s an area we can exploit. If Desmond’s head is screwed on."
Fingers crossed the Falcons find a way to figure that out under the Wembley arch.