When you think of the Atlanta Falcons, what springs to mind? For some, it’s Jamal Anderson doing the Dirty Bird in the end zone. For others, the sight and sound of Samuel L. Jackson demanding you “rise up” on a huge video screen. Perhaps the thought of downtown Atlanta’s skyline is enough to evoke memories of the boys in red and black? One thing’s for sure, your mind won’t jump over 4200 miles east, to a dreary October afternoon in London. That’s the prospect the 2021 Atlanta Falcons face this coming weekend. While the journey may be long, and the time difference unbearable, you can bet that it’ll be worth it. For one group of people, at least.
Across the pond
When Callum Halsall started work on the 2nd of February 2019, he didn’t expect to come away from his shift having had his imagination captured by a new sport. “I thought I’d just put it on. I worked shifts, so it was about 1 o’clock in the morning. I was just watching it…I remember watching it when I was younger, but I could never watch it properly because I had school in the morning. I just found myself enjoying it. I was texted Danny being like “let’s get into it, let’s just get inPhototto this”, he must have woken up with about 300 messages!”
The Super Bowl is one of the games broadcast for free in the UK. Sky Sports, the UK’s largest sports broadcaster, owns the majority of rights to the NFL, but the BBC shows the Super Bowl. That access has opened up the sport to millions of people, many of who consider themselves “NFL fans” as a result. For Cal, and Danny Foulkes, the 13-3 snoozefest of Super Bowl LIII wasn’t enough to deter them from diving headfirst into the sport. “We spoke for about 6 hours that night, and just thought “the season’s over now, we’ve got a few months, let’s pick a team and get into it”. We picked a team quite quick really.” “Far too quickly”, Danny quips.
Drawing the short straw
That team, as it turned out, was the Atlanta Falcons. For those who can’t remember, the Falcons had suffered a 7-9 season in 2018/19, which makes them a strange choice for two lads from Manchester to settle on. How does that even come about? Is it because that Super Bowl was held in Atlanta? Or that they appear at the top of the list when you search teams alphabetically? “There’s no romantic reason!”, Danny explains “We kind of whittled it down to a couple, and started looking into their stadiums, and jersey colors, players…anything to make you want to associate with the team. Somehow we stumbled onto Atlanta, and we just stuck with that!”
“We didn’t know about the Super Bowl, we knew they’d lost a couple, but we didn’t really look into it. We wanted a team who, we thought, were up and coming. Obvious that season they’d finished 7-9, but we knew they’d been to the playoffs before that. We thought it was a blip! We obviously don’t regret our choice, but we’ve said a couple of times that, if we did it again, we’d probably watch a whole season. But we can’t change it!”
Cal’s right, too. In the UK, supporting a sports team is a lifelong commitment. Eric Cantona once said “you can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favorite football team.” That tribalism seeped into Cal and Danny’s foray into the Falcons early on. “I’ve bought more Falcons gear than I’ve bought for any other team I’ve liked.” And that was that. They were Falcons fans. All they needed now was a season to watch.
ATLFalconsUK: Year Zero
We were texted each other early on just like “Oh my God what have we done? I’ve chosen this! We’ve walked into this!” Danny recalls, as we discuss the 2019 season. Their very first season watching the sport, and the Falcons enter the halfway point 1-7, and utterly listless. “Like Cal said, though, we wanted an up and coming team, and bit of a project team, so we were open to the losses. The good thing was that, because it was our first time watching the sport religiously, we were more focused on that rather than what was actually happening.”
The Falcons ended Cal and Danny’s first season with another 7-9 record, but that feeling of watching the sport on a regular basis sparked something. The country went into lockdown as COVID-19 hit, and they used that opportunity to try and really drill down on the sport itself. “We were still new to the sport.” explains Cal “It’s a hard sport to get into here, so we were just hoping to get some help properly understanding how the sport worked.” And if they picked up some UK fans along the way; the more the merrier.
“The account wasn’t set up to be what it is now! We just wanted to connect with people who knew the sport, and have a broader range of people to talk to!” The account in question is @ATLFalconsUK, which has amassed a following of just over 5000 followers, including the Atlanta Falcons account itself. From the moment that account was set up, things kind of snowballed.
Since the formation of that account, the boys have bounced from podcasts, to a merch line, and an incredibly active Twitter group of some of the UK’s most avid Falcons fans. But where they’ve grown their audience the most, and welcomed more and more Falcons fans into the fold on, is their weekly live shows.
“We had no intention of doing a show”, Danny explains, in reference to their initial podcast venture, “but we were approached by a network who kind of just told us what we needed, and we decided to go for it.” The first shows, recorded in Danny’s room, Cal recalls, required multiple efforts. “We would both stumble…the first episode was about 40 minutes long, and it took us about three hours to record.” We’ve all been there, to be fair.
Live and direct
As soon as the 2020 season started, however, they switched from podcasts to Streamyard and Zoom, opting for the live approach they’ve used since. And it’s only grown from there. Former Falcons, Jamal Anderson and Chuck Smith, current FOX Sports presenter Miles Garrett, and various members of the hugely popular SB Nation blog “The Falcoholic” have also made an appearance on their show over the past few months. Their biggest get, of course, will have been myself. But it’s the regular fans that come on every week that make the show what it is.
And that community feel to the shows has spilled over into the real world. As the Falcons gear up for their second trip to London, their UK fanbase feels more united, and more of a community than ever before. Thanks to the effort made to connect and cultivate that audience, Cal and Danny have been able to secure The Beehive pub, on Tottenham High Street, which is effectively halfway between the stadium, and the most prominent Underground stop to the stadium. There, the aforementioned Twitter group will meet up for, what I believe to be, the first UK Falcons meet-up ever.
“Everyone we know, just about every Falcons fan in the UK, has got a ticket. And that’s great. The Dolphins have a bit of an organized meet up in the same pub the week after, they’re doing a charity thing, etc. But I just messaged them asking if we could use them to meet up…it’s still gonna be open as normal, there are gonna be regular people there, but it’s just a good place for us to all meetup.”
For anyone planning on attending, it sounds as if the UK Jets have a similar thing going on in one of the pubs opposite. Though I’m not sure if the UK’s history of hooliganism will stretch to American Football.
Of course, neither Danny or Cal were into the sport when the Falcons last visited the UK (though they’re fully aware of how that went down). But both were optimistic heading into the Sunday’s clash. “They’ve got a lot of injuries, they’re in bad form, and they’re just a little bit all over the place. So I’m confident…at the same time, I’m always going to have doubts. Because we’re not actually that much better!” Danny’s quickly picked up that, with every Falcons statement you make, you need just a pinch of salt to balance it.
On the rest of the season? Less so. “I’d be very very shocked if we end up with a positive record. At this stage, at least. It’s not impossible, we can still put it together, but I’d be satiated with 7 or 8 wins.” And Cal echoes that; “I think we just want to see improvement. The defense has got to improve. We probably won’t reach the playoffs, but if we see improvement, that’s quite exciting for next season.”
The Jets @ Falcons is the furthest thing from a marquee match-up. If this were a game on during a prime time slot, you’d likely be looking at viewing figures through the floor. But for a thousands of Falcons fans in the UK, it’s the biggest game they’ve played for a good few years. The ATLFalconsUK faithful will do their absolute best to make this home game one that they, and the Falcons as a whole, won’t forget for quite some time.
Thanks to Cal and Danny for their time. Follow ATLFalconsUK on Twitter, and, if you’re attending, be sure to visit The Beehive Pub, Stoneleigh Rd., London N17 9BQ from 10am!