A golden-age for Irish sport is upon us. Our small-but-proud nation that traditionally enjoyed playing giant-killer is now beginning to reconsider its role among nations in global competition. Whether we fully realise it or not, Ireland is now being offered a seat at the top table of the sporting world.
We’ve defeated the notorious ‘big three’ southern hemisphere nations in rugby in one calendar year. We beat the Germans, Italians and put it up to the French in soccer, all in the past 18 months. We have Conor McGregor, who single-handedly brought the UFC from its infancy stage to the upper echelons of sport, bypassing its adolescence in the process. Our island even holds the highest return of golfing majors per capita in the past 10 years.
Of course, this is all very exciting but what is most baffling is that none of these can stop the rapid momentum in popularity of another global sporting powerhouse on this island, and if I gave you three guesses, you probably would not come up with the answer – American football.
Widely known as ‘America’s game’, American football has actually been competitively played in Ireland since the 1980s, but from 2001 to today, the number of participants in the Irish American Football Association (IAFA) has grown from a modest 120 to a whopping 2968, almost 25 times the figure from 15 years previous.
Understandably, team numbers have also sky-rocketed in that space of time. In 2001, there was only one league of four from the island’s largest urban areas. In 2016, Ireland saw 28 teams competing from all corners of the country, with towns such as Gorey, Carrickfergus, Craigavon and colleges like UL, Trinity and UCD all deploying teams. Even the PSNI up north has a team.
Steven O’Rourke, a journalist with Irish sports site the42.ie, takes the reins on most NFL topics for his employers. As an expert and with coaching experience in the IAFA some years ago, he feels it is a safe assumption that American football’s popularity is accelerating quicker than that of any other sport in the country.
“It claims to be the fastest growing field sport in terms of participation in Ireland and as someone who was involved in the league when there was only eight teams and I now see that there is three leagues of multiple teams, yeah I’d say it could be,” said O’ Rourke.
This probably sounds like a bold claim to the average Irish sports fan for the sole reason that domestic-level competition gets next to nothing in terms of major media coverage in this country. This fact that the sport has grown exponentially in spite of this fact is truly remarkable.
But where has this outbreak of love for the pigskin come from? One thing that is always under the watchful eye of corporations which invest heavily in the game stateside are the TV viewership numbers. Now, obviously viewership numbers here mean very little to the likes of companies such as Budweiser, Verizon or Applebees, but giving coverage to the sport this side of the Atlantic is the sole reason playing on Irish gridiron started.
Channel 4 once had a popular highlights show which may have been a culprit, and while O’Rourke reiterates that television was the main instigator for putting the sport on people’s radars in Ireland, he referred to an RTE highlights show hosted by Myles Dungan in the ‘80s as the more likely reason this occurred here.
“It might have been known for his bizarre jumpers that he’d wear rather than the highlights, but you’d get a game of the week which they’d show all the highlights from with all the touchdowns, all the field goals and stuff like that until they started showing the best from the rest sort of clips.”
Looking to now, O’Rourke then helplessly admitted he couldn’t “overstate the significance” of ‘NFL Redzone’ on Sky Sports, which shows live coverage from all games, but only cuts to a particular match when a team is in scoring position (inside 20 yards from the goal-line). He says this modern development is collecting a pool of fans who may have had an interest for the sport in the past, but couldn’t quite cope with sitting through a single game start to finish with the infamous amount of stoppages and advertisements.
Ireland’s rich history of emigration was also suggested as an explanation to seeds being sowed for many veteran fans today, but while thousands exited our airport terminals during the recession in the ‘80s, Kevin Klatt was taking the transatlantic flight in the opposite direction.
An American who moved over here in 1981 and now Team Ireland Quarterback’s Coach, Klatt has witnessed the entire journey that the sport has taken here to get to where it is today and confirmed O’Rourke’s TV theory.
“Basically it was completely non-existent back when I came here,” he said. “When I arrived, there was absolutely nothing and then around 1986, it kind of took off via television and later that year the IAFA was formed.”
But it is not just coverage on our TV screens that is driving the new craze. O’Rourke believes Sky Sport’s coverage of American football is on at a niche time for European viewers, not only due to a lack of competition with other major sports, but also for the sobering mood which many may have on a Sunday evening.
As well as being on at a gap-in-the-market time, he feels that players enter the sport as new competitors who are intrigued by a fresh alternative to the regular, mainsteam games.
“A lot of the people who play in Ireland wouldn’t necessarily watch NFL then on a Sunday night,” he said, “They just wanted to play the sport because they saw it as a new challenge, something rather than the norm.”
The self-proclaimed Oakland Raiders fan also covered the other obvious catalysts, like the comprehensive multi-million dollar business of fantasy football leagues which are free to use and easy for a fan with limited knowledge to play, as well as being a learning tool where a lot of the mud of over-analysis within the NFL sticks easier to the minds of a footballing student.
He also said one certainly couldn’t discredit the significance of regular-season games coming over to this side of the pond in both NFL and College Football forms, as they capture the imagination of fans who may not be able to see the best teams play in person due to the small body of water separating Europe and America.
These are surely owed tremendous credit for this sporting revolution, but O’Rourke still can’t fathom the consequences the combination of factors are having on the game in this country.
O’Rourke said, “To think that a team like Belfast Trojans, who were going for five-in-a-row had squad numbers of like 60 players. That is absolutely incredible to think that an Irish team would have 60 players turn up every week for training.”
As the domestic game grows, so too does Team Ireland as it recently held its first open tryouts back in November where over 80 footballers turned up with many of those getting selected to represent their country next year.
Klatt was impressed with what he saw at the national side’s auditions.
“There is no mistaking the athleticism and the fitness of the Irish team. With practice and with time, they will certainly be on a level playing field with any team in Europe.”
Confident Coach Klatt is not put off by the triumvirate of sports in Ireland, consisting of GAA, soccer and rugby. He is encouraged by the overwhelming support he sees, even in the third division games of the IAFA and thinks down the line, we could see the sport truly contesting the granite-base in following with the dominating trio.
“Based on experience with the Wexford Eagles last year, we were getting huge numbers. When I say huge numbers, we were getting hundreds coming to our games. We were getting more people coming to our games than were going to the local soccer matches and Gaelic matches.
“On that interest alone, I can see the game growing to a point where it does rival the other sports, particularly if, and I think this is more of a case of when now than if, the NFL opens a team in England.”
With the NFL increasing regular season games played in London to four for next season, a dream of this minority sport’s revolution in Europe is certainly looking more achievable. I personally find it difficult to differentiate between the two major sports called football in Ireland at times (soccer and gaelic). However, the next generation may find themselves in a spot of bother contending with three.