North American soccer fans are still abuzz over the amount of friendlies that took place during the summer of 2012, showing the world that the interest in high level soccer continues to rise. So the question now becomes, can American football still find its legs abroad? It is a question that has been addressed in fits and starts in the last 20 years, from the World League of American Football to the exhibitions and regular season games staged by NCAA, NFL and some high school teams to various degrees of success across Europe and in some cases in places like Bermuda and Japan. None of which have made for long term success yet, but this week two interesting efforts were pushed forward to least bring some additional buzz and consistency to the plan.
The biggest one was the Jacksonville Jaguars announcing they will forgo a home game every year for the next four years to play in Wembley Stadium in London. The move by the Jags and their new owner Shahid Khan makes Jacksonville an interesting litmus test for the long-discussed theory that American sport could increase its footprint into Europe consistently. The Jaguars, who struggle to fill Everbank Field at times and play in one of the smallest markets in North America, now get consistent brand exposure and a signature event every year with international exposure. They can possibly create brand partnerships that will make a London trip every year a key promotional destination, and work with the NFL to set up some grassroots and digital programming with local clubs interested in American football. Jacksonville being a key military hub is also an added plus, as a good amount of American football support abroad is usually tied to ex-pats, and now the chance to build a consistent tie with fans and families who could be stationed both in Northern Florida and then abroad will also help. Will Londoners learn to like the Jags? We shall see. However one thing that has been essential for building sport outside of its native boundaries is consistency of presence. Soccer has done a great job in establishing a club presence in North America…while the US exports have mainly been about the league brand. The Jags putting a consistent stake in the ground could help accelerate, or at least answer, the question of long term franchise viability for the NFL elsewhere.
Then there is the college and high school side. Next week, 12 American football high school and college teams will depart the United States and Canada, bound for Ireland where they will play a competitive regular season game as part of the biggest overseas event of its kind in the sport’s history.
The Global Ireland Football Tournament – GIFT 2012 – has been two years in the making and on the eve of the Emerald Isle Classic, sports fans in Dublin and Navan will be treated to a showcase of 12 teams playing six games at three venues in and around the Irish capital on Friday, August 31.
The games, organized by Texas-based Global Football, will kick off at 4pm and 7.30pm local time at three venues usually reserved for Gaelic football, hurling and rugby. But for this Dublin Friday Night Lights spectacular, Donnybrook Stadium and Parnell Park in Dublin and Páirc Tailteann in Navan, County Meath will all be painted with the gridiron and will welcome touchdowns, tackles, helmets and shoulder pads.
The schools will be some of the more elite high school football programs from across North America, including Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) vs. Jesuit Prep Dallas (Dallas, TX), Kent School (Kent, CT) vs. National School of American Football (UK), Notre Dame HS (Sherman Oak, CA) vs. Hamilton HS (Chandler, AZ), Villanova College (King City, ON) vs. Oak Park High School (Winnipeg, MB) and Notre Dame Prep (Scottsdale, AZ) vs. Father Judge (Philadelphia, PA) as well as a Division III matchup between John Carroll and St. Norberts.
While there have been numerous visits over the years by colleges ranging from Notre Dame and Fordham to Holy Cross and Boston College over the years, this push will be the most ambitious and widespread to help push American football in Ireland. While not a stakeholder series like the Jags have started, it is a widespread push to grab some casual fans and build brand for the sport to see where it can go.
Maybe at the end all these efforts will not bring more football American style to the shores of Europe, but will help to increase mobile following or merchandise sales or even TV viewership. What both efforts show is a more comprehensive push than ever before at a time when the obvious benefits of global marketing and branding are being seen by traditional football. Imitation after all, remains the sincerest part of flattery, even with pads and helmets.