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The global growth of the NFL

I’m a 40 year old Irishman who has been fascinated by the NFL since the late 80s.

As a child I sat transfixed watching game highlights on Monday nights on RTÉ (Irish television). So when I was 9 years old and heard about a live college game featuring two teams from America which was to be played only an hour’s drive away from my home, I begged my mother to take me along to see the then niche sport. Seeing how keen I was, she agreed to bring me and a couple of friends along to the Wild Geese Classic between Holy Cross and Fordham at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick in November 1991. I remember it being a bitterly cold day, but the game was compelling and even more exciting in person than in the highlights on TV. My friends were unenthused but I left an even bigger fan.

Of course on the island of Ireland, the history of international games goes back much further; the Potato Bowl between the Navy Galloping Gaels and the Army Wolverines took place in Belfast in 1944! It finished tied, 0-0, but it made history nevertheless. More recently we have seen the welcome return of College games to these shores and this year the Aer Lingus College Classic will see Nebraska take on Northwestern at the Aviva in August 2022.

The NFL itself has been no stranger to international games over the years. NFL exhibition games took place in Tokyo (1976), Mexico City (1978), and London (1983) before the term American Bowl series began in 1986, and featured 40 games until the series ended in 2005. Some of the most memorable of those games included a game between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers in Tokyo in 1995. The then rookie Terrell Davis almost left the trip but couldn't get a flight home, during the game he got a chance on special teams and took it! A crunching tackle on special teams kick started a career that led to two Super Bowl rings, a SB MVP, and a golden jacket when he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Another American Bowl game featured a trip to Ireland and a matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears at Croke Park in the summer of 1997. (Legendary Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher spoke to us about that trip during our interview which you can find here.) And you guessed it, my mother managed to get tickets for that game, too!

From there, an overseas league was developed. NFL Europe led to some hugely successful NFL careers and is remembered fondly.

In more recent history, the NFL International Series came along in 2007 and the first regular season NFL game was held outside North America which saw the Giants defeat the Dolphins 13–10 at Wembley stadium in London. The profile of and excitement around the International games has continued to grow since then with the increased number of London games and the addition of games in Mexico City beginning in 2016.

Building on this, there has been a sharpening of the focus on international development of the game over the past two years. Wisely, the NFL brought Brett Gosper onboard, a man who did a phenomenal job of growing the popularity of rugby around the world as head of World Rugby, after his appointment last year Brett spoke to the Irish NFL Show which you can watch here. They have a dedicated team both in the US and around the world who are committed to growing the sport internationally and their impact is immense.

There have been other very recent appointments including Charlotte Offord, Alexander Steinforth, and Henry Hodgson, as General Managers for Australia, Germany, and the UK respectively that will surely help continue the big jump in the NFL’s global reach. The Irish NFL Show interviews with Alexander and Henry can be viewed here and here.

Development hasn’t stopped at merely increasing the number of games and building fanbases around the world. A recent trend has seen emerging players from outside the US entering the league, bringing a whole new angle to the sport. At the International Press Conference during Super Bowl week, I spoke to Damani Leech (Chief Operating Officer, NFL International International) about the league's plans to expand the International Player Pathway. He also shared some exciting news plans to develop the programme over the coming years. Watch here

As the popularity of the sport has grown, the NFL has clearly demonstrated a commitment to growing the game globally. As 40 year old me is preparing for tomorrow’s announcement of this year’s international games I know 9 year old me would be over the moon!

You can follow me on Twitter @ColumFromCork


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