11 February, 2022 | Posted by Colm McDonnell

America’s Game: Examining the Growth of American Football in Ireland Ahead of the 56th NFL Superbowl

The diversity of skills, physicality and tactical elements needed on an American Football team are contributing to the popularity of this niche sport on Irish soil.

Increasing interest, analysis and commentary on one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the National Football League’s Superbowl, which takes place on February 13th is also boosting interest in the game at home and abroad.

The 56th instalment has been preceded by the longest regular season in the NFL’s history with the 32 teams each playing a total of 17 games across 18 weeks.

After shock upsets saw players like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers all dumped out of the competition, there are now just two teams left, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams.

The event itself pulls in around 100 million viewers annually. A recent projection from PredictHQ estimates there could be 117 million viewers for this year’s Superbowl, which would surpass the current record viewership of 115 million set in 2015.

Ad revenue from broadcasting the event has also exploded. In 2020 total ad revenue reached $450 million with a 30-second ad spot costing $5.25 million. This has since risen to $6.5 million for 2022.

This increase in interest is being felt closer to home too.

Before last year’s Superbowl, Sky Sports, which is the proprietor of NFL coverage in the UK and Ireland, reported a 30% increase in viewership across the regular season and playoffs.

Sky Sports’ main NFL anchor, Neil Reynolds, said in an interview with Extra.ie that a significant number of that increase is from Irish fans tuning in to Sky to catch the action.

Ahead of the biggest game in the NFL’s calendar, we turned our attention to the prevalence of ‘America’s Game’ in Ireland.

Aidan Maguire is the President of American Football Ireland (AFI), the governing body of the sport in Ireland.

“The association has been part of the Irish sports family for just over 30 years.

“It started off with four to six teams. It’s now progressed to 20 standard football teams, 25 flag football teams, which is an American Football version of tag rugby, and seven youth football teams. That’s tackle football, but it’s eight-a-side and it’s for our members aged 15 to 18.

“We’ve come a long way since our founding. We’re the national governing body for the sport in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland so it’s an all-Ireland sport. That’s great because we get support from both sporting governing bodies,” Aidan said.

One of AFI’s primary concerns is continuing the efforts they have been putting in for the last three decades to increase the number of players playing the sport in the country.

They are exploring various avenues in order to achieve that including a collaboration with the popular podcast, the Irish NFL Show.

“We had a workshop recently with the Irish NFL show and Jeff Reinebold, the Sky Sports analyst.

“I was speaking to the Irish NFL lads and, after the Superbowl, we’re going to discuss how we can benefit them, and they can benefit us.

“With their numbers and following, if one or two people joined in every club in the country, I’d be over the moon. I’m all about getting people in and playing the sport. Any help we get is great,” Aidan said.

What goes into being an American football player, what kind of skills are needed and what physical shape do players need to be in? The wide-ranging answers to these questions make this a sport of interest for a diverse range of people.

“Our sport is unique in a way. It’s a cliché to say but it doesn’t matter what size or shape you are, there’s always a spot for you.

“If you watch American Football, you have big heavy lads in the front, and you’d have small fast lads on the side. There’s always a place for anyone to come into our sport.

“Different positions would have different levels of expectations when it comes to fitness. A wide receiver has to be fast, has to be agile.

“That wouldn’t necessarily be a priority to someone in the trenches where it’s all about physicality. There’s an element of quickness to it but you’re not expecting someone to run 30 yards every play. It’s more about physicality.

“It is a very physical sport. It gets compared to rugby quite a bit.

“Our sport is all about acceleration, short-area quickness. Rugby and other sports are more stamina-based where you’re constantly moving. Our sport, as soon as the ball snaps, you have to go 120% for five or six seconds. On the front line, you’re in a scrap every 20 seconds for five or six seconds. It’s exhausting that way.

“Like all sports, when you start your pre-season, it is very sore. You have pains in places you didn’t know you could have them,” he said.

And beyond the physical demands, there is a huge tactical element to American football.

In each phase of play, a team will run an offensive and defensive play, depending on which team has the ball. Teams might have over 100 plays prepared for each game each with different run patterns for wide receivers and running backs to remember.

While not to the same level, coaches in the AFI have to develop plays of their own too.

“What I’ve found out since I started playing, there are coaches in this country that have a great way of transferring that knowledge and the technical and mental aspect to the players.

“They have a great way of teaching a playbook. Things like how far you have to run before you cut in or cut out. On defence, when you blitz or what kind of move you do to try and sack the quarterback.

“Our coaches have a great way of teaching that. It’s great for such a niche sport,” Aidan said.

Like many sporting organisations, AFI suffered from the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic and perhaps more so than others.

“We’ve had a tough two years with Covid. Particularly with our sport because we’re contact driven. We’re one of the last sports to open up with restrictions.

“We’ve lost two years and we’re very excited to get back to what we know best, playing football, on March 13th. That’s when the tackle season starts.

“We have a full game schedule over three different leagues with our 20 tackle football teams. They’ll start back soon. It’s a great time and we’re over the moon to be back,” he said.

The standard NFL team has 53 roster spots with a number of reserves. Collegiate football has even more with up to and above 100 players on a roster at any one time.

American football in Ireland works with a smaller population pool but continues to grow year on year.

“Geographical area has a massive effect on how many players are available to a team.

“If you look at the teams based in Belfast, Dublin, and Cork, they’re major cities so they have a huge player pool to draft from.

“Clubs in places Dundalk, Mullingar or Wexford, there are smaller player pools. But there are still 35 players who are willing to be here and go out and play the sport. It’s phenomenal.

“We were growing year-on-year up until Covid. We’ll see how clubs came through the pandemic this year and then it’ll be full steam ahead,” he said.

In this weekend’s showcase, the bookies would have you believe that the Rams are the favourites, but Aidan doesn’t see it being quite so clear cut.

“I think they are but slightly.

“The Bengals have to look after the Rams front seven, their defensive line and linebackers. They are going to put pressure on Joe Burrow.

“While Joe Burrow is taking the pressure, the Rams defence has to contend with Joe Burrow’s receiving core which is one of the best in the league. It’s a great matchup between the offence of the Bengals and the defence of the Rams.

“I hope it’s going to be a high scoring game because both offences are explosive.

“The Rams in the offseason picked up Matthew Stafford, which was a feel-good story after 10+ years with the Detroit Lions. He has a great receiving core now with Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, and Odell Beckham Jr.

“It’s going to be a very defence tactically minded game as well. Both teams are going to have to contend with the other’s receiving core.

“During the game with the Chiefs, the Bengals came out at halftime with a new defensive game plan and scuppered Patrick Mahomes.

“It’s a great chess match. It’s always great to see new teams and new quarterbacks in the Superbowl. And now that Tom Brady’s left there should be more,” he said.

It’s set up to be a great spectacle, but Aidan is reluctant to call a winner.

“I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan so the Bengals are in my division. I would like to see the Bengals win, being honest, but I can’t call it.

“The two teams are very evenly matched, and I just hope it’s a good high scoring game,” he said.

With excitement and interest like this dotted throughout Ireland, interest in the AFI continues to grow. If you are interested in taking part at any level, you can find your local team here.

If you are interested in any of our sports courses or have any questions you can book a consultation call with our expert sports advisor Jo Shaw here, email jo.shaw@portobelloinstitute.com or call 01 892 0024. 


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