Scottish-born Darren McMullen has been fascinated with American football since age 7, tuning in Sundays on an old television with rabbit ears. Now the host of such shows as The Voice Australia is exploring his love affair with the game firsthand on the new USA Network series NFL Football Fanatic.
The series, premiering Jan. 1, isn’t just about McMullen’s immersive journey to find a team to dedicate his fandom toward. The 35-year-old is using football as a looking glass into American culture.
“I moved to America in 2009. I was in a place watching NFL football, but was living in L.A., where they didn’t have a team [at the time],” McMullen said on how the show concept came together. “So, eventually I traveled to a couple of games in New York and saw the Jets play one weekend, and the next weekend I saw the Giants play. Even though it was the same city and made up of the same people, the culture of the teams couldn’t be more different among the fans.
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“I was like, ‘Wow, if these fans are so different from the same place, imagine what is going to be like if I got to the Midwest or the Deep South and Texas and the West Coast. I am going to find my team.’ For the first time in my life, I don’t have to pick a team based on who my family supports. In Scotland, you support who your family supports, otherwise you get kicked out of the house and the locks get changed.”
Execs liked the pitch, as did the NFL, who gave him unprecedented access beyond the tailgates, to inside team stadiums and the major players on the field and in the boardroom.
“I understand they don’t get involved in much, really,” McMullen said. “I believe this is their first adventure outside of NFL Films. The experience has been life-changing stuff for me; I will never forget. It was such a great few months for me.”
Over the course of the initial eight episodes, McMullen had three prerequisites in his mind during the decision-making process: He wanted it to be a good host city, because plans are to attend as many games as possible; second, the fans must be passionate and not bandwagoners; and third, the team has to have great culture that he would be proud to support.
“It’s not just a football show. It’s about the food in the cities, about the importance this football team places socially and economically in that city. It’s about the history of the club and the people there and what they do. Each city is different,” McMullen said.
“What I realized, is even though this is a country very divided, and the world is very divided at the moment, there is more that makes us similar. That is what I love about football. Football is a time where you can sit in a crowd of 70 to 100,000 complete strangers and share a human experience with them, and enjoyment and entertainment with them. Nobody cares what your political preferences are, sexual preferences are. As long as you’re wearing their color jersey, it’s this beautiful moment where all the crap gets left out. You just sit in a stadium to enjoy this tribal experience of supporting a sport—men, gladiators battling it out. It’s age-old. I love that.”
NFL Football Fanatic took McMullen to places like Kansas City, Green Bay and Philadelphia. His eyes were opened to each destination’s proud people and the surroundings' unique charm. The teams rolled out the red carpet for their prospective fan in hopes of winning him over. He could feel the competitiveness among the organizations. McMullen believes the show will entertain beyond the diehard NFL audience.
“I imagine people sitting on the couch with their partner who doesn’t watch football saying, ‘Hey, you don’t know much about football. You wanted to learn. Watch this guy. He’ll kind of guide you through it.’ I would love a lot of foreigners to watch, too, because through filming of this show I’ve been contacted [by people] in the U.K. and Australia and Asia saying they didn’t have a team either.
“There is a bit of history and knowledge with a laugh. It’s funny. I’m not the most athletic person. I’m just this guy traveling around trying to find my team. The first time I ever had somebody throw a ball back to me it was [Dallas Cowboys’] Dak Prescott. And I have Coach Derrick [Dooley] going, ‘Show me what you got.’ It was a disaster. I was throwing like I was 2 years old. In the backyard, I’m thinking I’m my own MVP, but it turns out I wasn’t bred to be a quarterback after all. So, here is the funny aspect of kicking field goals or being tackled by 6-foot-6, 320-pound men and feeling what it’s like to be a football player. I have a whole new appreciation for what these guys do.”
Filming took place earlier this season with the idea of it airing in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. McMullen hopes NFL Football Fanatic is successful to the point he can do all the 32 teams in four seasons.
Super Bowl 52 will take place in Minnesota on February 4, 2018.
“I want to see it through until the very end, where I can officially pick my team,” he said. “Regardless if we film the continuation of this journey beyond this season, I will absolutely be partaking in that, because I made a commitment of doing it. It’s a great way to see America.”
NFL Football Fanatic premieres on Monday, Jan. 1, at 11/10c on USA Network