A First-Timer’s Guide to Attending an NFL Game
Featured destinations: USA, The South USA
Published 28 October 2016
Until recently, all the knowledge I held of American football was the slogan 'clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose' from American TV drama Friday Night Lights. All that changed however when, on holiday in Dallas/Fort Worth, I attended a Dallas Cowboys game at their home stadium.
The experience was eye-opening for many reasons, firstly in terms of just how big a spectacle it is. Before the players even run onto the field you’ve got cheerleaders, mascots and fireworks trying their hardest to get the crowd going, while food and drink vendors work each aisle so you never need to miss a thing.
Secondly, I was amazed by how American football culture is so different to the UK. It’s seen as very much a family event, banter between the teams is quite friendly and every single person in attendance wears their team's colours. And I mean EVERY SINGLE PERSON.
Needless to say, there was plenty to take in, and even a few learnings to pass on:
Which game to go to: college, pre-season or play offs?
Not all football games are made equal in America. If you’re a complete NFL (National Football League!) novice and just want to experience a game for the sake of it, attending a college game is probably the easiest option in terms of getting tickets. Don’t think you won’t get the full experience at a college game though as they’re sometimes even better in terms of live performances (think school marching bands) and passion (current and previous college alumni), and garner just as much of a loyal following as the professional league.
If you’re looking to see the pros in action though, you can see them in a pre-season game from August to early September, or in the all-important play offs from early September to early February, which ends with the world famous Super Bowl.
How to get tickets
Ticketmaster is the official ticket exchange of the NFL. If you’re looking to see a top team such as the Dallas Cowboys or the New England Patriots play, you may find tickets to those games sell out within hours. If this happens, it’s possible to purchase re-sale tickets on websites like StubHub or, for a safer option, you can purchase a package through companies like Sports Traveler, which specialises in helping tourists, passionate fans and big groups attend NFL games. They even offer Super Bowl Packages if you’re looking for the ultimate experience.
How to get to the game
As you’ve probably already guessed, the NFL stadiums in the USA are big. I’m talking stadiums like those in Michigan and Ohio that seat over 100,000 people (to put that into persepctive, Wembley Stadium in London has 90,000 seats). In fact, the AT&T Stadium that I visited in Dallas seats 80,000 but felt so much bigger than Wembley as it had all the trimmings including luxury suites, standing areas, an art programme and, most impressively, a HD TV video screen that's officially the 24th largest in the world.
With this mammoth size, most NFL stadiums are located reasonably far from central areas. For example, the AT&T Stadium was located smack-bang between Dallas and Fort Worth, around a 30-minute drive from each city. Unfortunately, the public transport to these events isn't great, with most people opting to drive or take a dedicated NFL bus. If you book with Sports Traveler, they’ll transfer you from your hotel to the game both ways, which was a blessing, especially after the game when looking for a taxi or Uber would have been a nightmare.
How to attend a tailgate party
What was once a casual pre-game party in the parking lot of the stadium has grown into an incredible beast that involves professional-style party set ups. In fact, with stadium parking costing up to US$75, many people opt to throw a tailgate party instead of attending the actual game. Walking to the stadium I was blown away by the amount of effort people put into the tailgate party set-up, with everything from large barbecues to NFL-branded tents, giant speakers, TVs and more.
If you’re not driving, but still want to attend a tailgate party, it’s possible to buy tickets to an official gathering. I attended one as part of my package with Sports Traveler and got to mingle with plenty of passionate fans, as well as enjoy a pre-game meal and drink via the all-you-can-eat buffet and open bar (which I was delighted to find included delicious margaritas). After the meal I browsed the merch tents, enjoyed a meet and greet with a veteran player and watched the entertainment as rival fans got up to compete in trivia questions and dance competitions. It was an event that perfectly prepared me for the game and got me into the spirit of things.
What to wear
As soon as I entered the tent of the tailgate party I became very aware that I was the only person in the room not wearing team colours and this feeling only increased when walking to the stadium. If you want to blend in with the crowd, choose a team and wear their colours. Even if it’s just a cap (which is what I ended up going for), it’ll help you get into the spirit and tie you to a team to cheer for.
What to bring
Now this is the most important thing to know when attending an NFL game in America. There are restrictions in terms of the size and type of bag you can bring. Clutch-style bags, clear plastic tote bags up to 12x6x12 inches and one-gallon plastic freezer bags are the only types of bags permitted into the stadium. You can however store things in your pockets, which is what I opted to do in the end, and I just carried my camera in my hand. Easy!
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