The links between Ireland and the United States are manifold. One of the sporting links lies within the growth of the NFL in Ireland.
As you might expect from the biggest sport in the US, one with an estimated 18 million dedicated fans in the country alone, American football is set on building a truly global presence.
While the huge markets of Asia and the Far East might seem like the most obvious areas of expansion, the NFL is also keen to develop smaller markets too.
Ireland is one, in particular, that is receiving special attention at the moment, and there are a number of factors driving this aim to bring gridiron to the United States’ nearest neighbours across the Atlantic.
A long heritage of Irish involvement – historical links to the sport
The very obvious and historical links between the two countries mean that there have been a considerable number of leading NFL players with Irish heritage, including some very big names indeed.
Perhaps the highest profile one of these is Tom Brady, the star quarterback for the New England Patriots, winner of numerous Super Bowls as well as many MVP awards. His great-grandparents, John and Bridget Brady, emigrated to Boston in the 1800s.
Aaron Rodgers is another big star name whose origins lie in the Emerald Isle.
In his case, it was his paternal grandfather, Jim Rodgers, who travelled over to the US in 1927 from his home in Clonroche, County Wexford, to settle in California. He then met and married an American woman, and one of their sons was Aaron Rodgers’s father.
Another link that both these players have with the old country is that in the past, they were both involved in the so-called Shamrock Series, games played in Dublin featuring the “Fighting Irish” of Notre Dame University and a number of different opponents.
The development of the game in Ireland – an ever-growing number of teams
The body responsible for the promotion and growing popularity of the sport in the country is called American Football Ireland. It’s been in existence for over three decades. During this time, it has grown from having just four teams to the current total of 20.
There are also 25 flag football teams – the non-contact version of the game – as well as seven youth teams.
The organisation covers both the Republic and Northern Ireland, so support is forthcoming from the governing bodies of both countries. There’s also great impetus to recruit new players and generate interest in the game through linkups with the Irish NFL podcast.
Player recruitment is proving to be relatively straightforward in big cities like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. But more remote areas like Dundalk and Wexford have smaller player pools to draw from, so the focus is being developed on promoting the sport off the beaten track.
A natural fit for the sport – similarities with rugby and Gaelic football
There are many reasons why American football and Ireland are natural bedfellows. One only has to look at the sports that are already very popular in the country, like rugby and Gaelic football to see that they share many of the same requirements of players.
Both involve quick bursts of acceleration and the ability to kick and throw accurately, even when the opposing team are advancing threateningly on the individual with the ball.
Another less obvious area of appeal has been the development of sports betting in the US. Ireland is a country that undoubtedly enjoys a wager, and NFL games offer plenty of opportunities to do this.
Following the legalisation of sports betting in the US in 2018, there has been a true explosion of the activity, even in states with no NFL team of their own.
For example, there are numerous sportsbooks offering promos in Virginia so fans can bet on their favourites from other states like neighbouring Washington.
There are also plenty of sports fans in Ireland who will surely welcome the chance to bet on the game as an alternative to the more usual horse racing and soccer.
Bringing the NFL to Ireland – could we see NFL games at Lansdowne Road?
As part of its Global Markets Program, there has even been talk of some NFL games being played in Dublin. Since 2013, one or two games in the regular season have been played in England’s Wembley Stadium and have proved hugely popular.
While seeing two NFL teams go head-to-head at Lansdowne Road may still be some way off, Irish NFL fans can expect to see much more about the Pittsburgh Steelers in future.
This is because the team has been granted international marketing rights to promote themselves in the country, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
So, through these initiatives, alongside many others, we can expect to see the sport of American Football starting to get an even stronger presence in the country.
And who knows? The next big star of the professional game in America could already be learning the skills needed to succeed while still back home in Ireland.
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