American football is showing signs of competing with Ireland’s most popular sports, such as Gaelic football and rugby, with a growing number of fans and players tuning in to the NFL.
The number of participants in American football in Ireland is also on the rise, too.
Although gridiron has been played loosely in the Republic since the 1980s, the number of players has risen markedly since the turn of the millennium.
In 2001, just 120 players were involved with the Irish American Football Association (IAFA), but by 2017 some 2,968 players were participating regularly.
The Irish American Football League (IAFL) is the competition that has benefited most from the surge in popularity of American football.
Established way back in 1984, in the 80s and 90s the IAFL only hosted a single event known as the Shamrock Bowl between the Craigavon Cowboys and the Dublin Celts.
The Celts would become the dominant force in American football in Ireland and were eventually selected to represent Ireland at the Euro Bowl, which is considered the “Champions League” of American football in continental Europe.
The growth of the Irish American Football League
Wind the clock forward to the present day in the IAFL and there are now 22 teams competing in a dedicated league format.
That’s only ten fewer than the number that will be competing for the Super Bowl LIV title, with the latest Super Bowl moneylines suggesting it could be a four-way fight between the Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams.
In Ireland, the Dublin Rebels have dominated the IAFL, winning the title nine times, but the Cork Admirals made history by taking the spoils last year.
Ireland’s American footballers have a role model to look up to in the shape of Patrick Murray.
Murray’s father and uncle both played Gaelic football for the prestigious club of Monaghan, but despite learning to kick Gaelic footballs just as well as his predecessors, Patrick would eventually turn his attentions to the NFL.
Murray opted not to study at college in Dublin and instead continued his studies in America, appearing for Fordham as a punter and kicker.
His performances saw him become an All-American kicker, attracting the attention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who offered him a futures contract.
Murray has since featured for the Buccaneers, the Browns and the Saints during his time in NFL, becoming an icon for Irish NFL followers.
Ireland’s love for American college football, too
It’s not just NFL football that Ireland is going mad for—it’s America’s college football, too.
In September 2016, Dublin’s Aviva Stadium played host to the first game of the new college football season between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Boston College Eagles.
Meanwhile, more than 53,000 were in attendance to watch a college football fixture between Penn State’s Nittany Lions and the University of Central Florida Knights back in 2015.
Matthew Craig, IAFA board member and chairman of the Carrickfergus Knights, believes that it’s not unrealistic to expect that Ireland could yield an even bigger crowd than that if it were given the chance to host an NFL game.
As an inspiration for Dublin becoming another host city for NFL contests, Mr. Craig pointed to the way in which London’s Wembley Stadium has taken NFL to its heart in recent years.
Craig believes it is “something that will happen in time”, given the demand among Irish fans and the growth of the sport nationwide.
Cecil Martin, a former Sky Sports analyst for its NFL channel, once hosted training camps in both Dublin and Belfast; these were aimed at giving local American footballers a platform to showcase their talents and get a taste of what it’s like to train and play American football professionally.
The rosters of many teams competing in the IAFL are now reaching 30 to 40, and Michael Smith, president of the IAFA, believes that this is a sign of how popular the game of American football has become Ireland.
Smith believes these figures are “similar” to NFL franchises. In the 2019 IAFL campaign, there are three separate conferences in existence: the Shamrock Bowl Conference, the IAFL-1 and the IAFL-2.
The latter is considered the third tier of American football in Ireland and was designed to welcome new teams to the sport by helping clubs get off the ground slowly and play against teams with similar histories and philosophies.
NFL has become increasingly accessible to Irish fans
Irish sports journalist Steven O’Rourke believes that American football in Ireland has benefited greatly from Sky Sports having secured the NFL broadcasting rights in recent years.
Given that many NFL games are scheduled during Sunday lunchtimes and early afternoons in America, this has allowed live NFL games to be broadcast on Sunday evenings in Ireland, at a time when there is very little competition on the TV schedules.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that the NFL has still shown no appetite to host an NFL game in Ireland, despite choosing to host more games overseas in Dusseldorf and Mexico City.
Mark Waller, executive vice president of the NFL, once said that the league was looking to “accelerate its agenda” in Mexico, China and Canada, as the organization has a presence in all three of those nations. Waller also labelled Brazil and Germany “frontier markets”, but made no mention of Ireland as a future host.
As part of the IAFL’s preparations for the next Shamrock Bowl XXXII, to be held on 4th August, the IAFA board has launched a competition to encourage American football fans across Ireland to design a logo to be used exclusively for Shamrock Bowl 33.
The winning entrant will receive an all-4-one voucher worth €200, as well as two VIP tickets to watch the 33rd Shamrock Bowl, two tickets to watch the U20’s Wolfhounds vs Bristol Pride home fixture, and plenty of IAFA and Wolfhounds merchandise.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Ireland’s next generation of sporting fans could be talking about a “big three” rather than a “big two” (Gaelic football and soccer). At present, American football is attracting all generations in Ireland, which is pleasing to see.