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Early Saturday morning, at half past midnight, a small but passionate group of fans will gather in front of our American TVs to watch the grand finale, the Super Bowl of Australian football.

Something unites us – maybe insomnia? – who decide to play sports from the other side of the world, which is far beyond the comfort zone of our upbringing.

But niche fans cheer on all kinds of sports from afar, a comforting reminder of how much the world is shrinking.

“I started watching and I really like it,” said T.J. Sherwood, a 19-year-old student in Tennessee who is also a football fan.

Kind of like the people in football-crazy Britain who are increasingly yearning for the American brand of football brought to their side of the Atlantic by the massive pressure of the NFL and an increasingly diverse media landscape.

“It’s a good sport. Contains violence. He’s got scoring,” said Joe Vincent, a Welshman who founded the Jacksonville Jaguars fan club in Great Britain. “Once you go to a game, you’re hooked.”

Vincent, a lifelong football and rugby fan like many in Britain, was first exposed to the NFL by playing the video game Madden in 1996. He decided to pick his favorite team.

“I was new to the sport, so I thought it was best to follow one of the new teams,” he recalled. “Carolina and Jacksonville had just started (the year before), so I picked Jacksonville.”

Well, that didn’t work out so well.

“Kind of frustrating,” joked Vincent. “I could have picked any team. I didn’t even know Jacksonville existed. I couldn’t tell you where it is. I could literally pick the Patriots.”

But that’s okay. The Jaguars now consider London a second home, having struck a deal in 2013 that has brought them to Britain for a game every season except for the 2020 campaign, which was marred by the pandemic.

Jacksonville will return to Wembley Stadium on October 30 to face the Broncos in one of three games to be held in London. Another will be held in Munich, another in Mexico City.

Vincent attended every Jags game in London and passed his adoration on to his son Evan. Last year, the youngster collected a game ball after Jacksonville upset the Dolphins to snap a 20-game losing streak, the culmination of Urban Meyer’s dumpster fire as a coach.

“My son was a newborn when the Jaguars played their first game in London,” Vincent said. “He’s 9 years old now and he’s absolutely crazy about the NFL. A new generation of fans will come only from fathers who will take their children to the matches.”

Australian football has far less influence on the American sporting public, but more than 30 cities will host viewing parties for Saturday’s grand final, which kicks off at 12.35pm on the US East Coast due to the 14-hour time difference. .

One of these will be in Rome – Georgia, about an hour’s drive northwest of Atlanta. Local football team, the Redbacks, will line up at the Cosmic Dog Outpost to watch the Geelong Cats take on the Sydney Swans.

When someone asks Redbacks player Aaron Nobles to explain Australian rules football, he usually replies: “If you combine rugby, football, basketball and volleyball and put it on a cricket oval, this is what you have.”

Nobles will be watching the grand final, although it won’t finish until after 3am and he has to be at work by 10am.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I can deal with that.”

The time difference works much better for NFL fans across the pond.

NFL games at 1pm on the East Coast start at 6pm. in Britain.

“The Premier League finishes at 6pm so you can go to the NFL and have the rest of the evening covered,” Vincent said.

Sherwood, a student at Cleveland State Community College, became an AFL fan about four years ago. He played his first game after joining the young team in Chattanooga this past weekend.

Not one to follow the crowd, Sherwood has little interest in the popular American games, which he calls “start-and-stop sports.” He prefers rugby and Australian rules football.

“I watch sports to watch sports,” he said. “I don’t watch sports to watch commercials.”

My first exposure to Australian rules football was in the 1980s in the early days of ESPN, looking Down Under in its desperate search for programming.

It seemed so strange, this non-stop game played on an oval pitch (it’s actually a cricket pitch) with players who couldn’t roll over, who didn’t wear helmets or an iota of pad. American fans were especially amused by the referees, dressed in white jackets and wide-brimmed hats, who signaled goals (worth six points) and deficits (one point).

My reunion with footy came during the 2007 World Aquatics Championships, after an hour’s train ride from Melbourne, Australia, to interview US swimmers training in Geelong, a modest city of about a quarter of a million on the Victorian coast.

As luck would have it, the pool was at Kardinia Park, home to the stadium that is home to the Cats. The team happened to be playing what we call a preseason game in the US. After the job was done, there was still time to catch the match.

The game was engrossing, albeit with only a modest idea of ​​what was actually going on. Fortunately, there were plenty of friendly fans willing to offer a basic lesson or two. And as the final horn sounded, the speaker blared the hokey but endearing Cats theme song “We Are Geelong (the greatest team of all).”

Back in the US, I followed the Cats religiously that season as they stunningly clinched their first premiership in the Australian Football League since 1963, the year I was born.

Geelong has remained a strong club, earning a place in the finals (known in the US as the play-offs) in 15 of the last 16 seasons, although they haven‘t won it all since 2011.

On Saturday, in front of some 100,000 spectators at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, they will try to clinch their title against the Swans.

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Email him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

More AP Sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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