There’s plenty of huge sporting action this weekend. Chelsea v Arsenal, Warrington v Wigan, Broncos v Roosters and India v West Indies will all command huge crowds on TV and in the grounds, but something that might fall under the radar is the Belfast Trojans at Carrickfergus Knights in the IAFA. That’s American Football or NFL or whatever you want to call it in Ireland.
It might be easy to dismiss American Football as a minority sport and that this weekend’s big season opener is nothing more than a local squabble. But that misses the fact that it’s the fastest growing sport in Ireland at the moment and this is being backed up by some serious expansion work by the NFL. The game is on the up and the Trojans are at the vanguard of the game in Ireland.
Belfast Trojans’ Assistant Head Coach, Drew Mikhael, is clear where the focus of the NFL is over the coming years. “Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, talks about a global game and has set himself a target of growing the multi-billion dollar business of the NFL and he wants to do that through international expansion. He views London as his first franchise location.”
If the NFL is serious about expanding into Europe via London, then the UK and Ireland move to the forefront of the game’s development. NFL Europe, the trial with a development competition across Europe, struggled in many places because of a lack of buy in from locals who didn’t want to watch a parachuted in team. If the NFL want to do well in Europe – and they do – then developing local talent should feature highly on their to-do list.
Which brings us back to the Trojans. Back to back Shamrock Bowl winners (Irish Champions), winners of last year’s Atlantic Cup (a bit like the UEFA Cup for European American Football) and they haven’t been beaten since 2011. In the local game, they’re the big dogs.
With no direct help from the NFL, the Trojans have built from a break away club in 2007 to dominating the Irish league and having 55 new faces turn up for a rookie day last year and a squad of 71 players. That’s the sort of figures that would have any ‘local’ rugby, football or GAA team hi-fiving in the committee room. But they’re not stopping. Mikhael continues;
“This season we’ve improved off the field, with a sponsorship from Budweiser which will help us compete in the Atlantic Cup again and a new home field. On the field we’ve increased competition for starting places, which is the only way we can improve. Guys now know they have to turn up to train, learn their play book and buy into the team ethos or they don’t play. Everyone will be gunning for us this year too, which is good because it forces us to get better.”
Talking to Drew Mikhael, it’s clear that the game is on the rise and it’s equally clear where that demand is being stimulated: TV. Mikhael himself fell in love with the game while watching Channel 4’s excellent coverage during the 1980s and he recognises many of his generation are involved in the sport.
“Anecdotally, many of the guys involved in all of the teams in Ireland followed that journey with many of the coaches and players having been involved since the Channel 4 days. Now, the interest is building again, with terrestrial and satellite TV broadcasting carrying expanded coverage bringing new faces to the game.”
The game has expanded over recent years in Ireland, with more teams now taking part than during the 1980s heyday. And Mikhael sees a different quality of player coming through too. “The level of athletes coming through is immense and many of the players we’re seeing now are rugby players.”
Which brings us to the question most often asked of American Football – it’s just a soft game played by frustrated rugby players who have to wear pads, right? It’s something that obviously comes up regularly in a rugby mad country. Drew laughs, “lots of ex rugby players appreciate the physical element. Yes, there are pads, but they recognise that in our game, they get to smash people a lot and that’s the bit they like.”
New England Calling
So with the relentless march of NFL into Europe, expanded TV coverage driving new bodies into the game and better athletes turning up on rookie days, what’s that done to the quality of the league? Mikhael answers without hesitation,
“The standard is much, much, much, much, much better. It’s night and day compared to three years ago.” That’s pretty clear then! “It’s not quite up to the standard in Great Britain, or in places like Germany, Switzerland or Austria, where they take it really seriously, but we’re improving. Better athletes plus better coaches equals a better standard.”
Which brings us back to the NFL’s expansion plans. If they are looking for local talent to help embed the team in the British psyche, can anyone from Ireland follow in the footsteps of Lawrence Okoye, the Olympic discus thrower who has been snapped up by the San Francisco 49ers?
Mikhael has been involved in the sport in Belfast since 2007 so has seen much of the talent pull on the pads, but he’s not sure. “There’s a huge gap in standards between the league in Ireland and even the college game in the States. Yeah, we’ve had some players who have had some natural ability and freaky athletic talent who could maybe, maybe have reached lower level college standards, but it’s a step up again from there to the NFL.”
The NFL is driving towards being a truly global game, but has to get over a number of significant hurdles, not least the equipment needed to get even a friendly game off the ground. Compared to Basketball, another US sport looking to rule the world, it’s got challenges to overcome.
But the game is taking hold in places like Ireland. A college game between Notre Dame and the US Navy sold out Croke Park, the 82,000 capacity home of the GAA and there’s another college game coming this summer. There are three division of teams, all with qualified coaches and impressive off field organisation.
And as Mikhael points out, “it might look like a complex cacophony of mayhem, but it’s all about one man against another man in a personal battle.” When the game is explained in those terms, who wouldn’t want to watch it?
Carrickfergus Knights take on the Belfast Trojans in the opening game of the season at Carrick Rugby Club, on Sunday 23rd March at 2pm. If you’re anywhere close, why not go along and keep the Trojan flag flying high?