British American Football Plans To Get Serious

Wildcats by Anita Crant 2

To the approximately 14,000 registered American football players in Britain, whether playing youth or flag or full contact, much is being promised. The governing body has a new full-time CEO entering his second year, and Sport England will open funding in 2021. The game is seeking Olympic status for its flag version, aiming for Los Angeles 2028, at which GB would hope to medal.

Meanwhile, the NFL continues to strongly promote upon the island, and its media coverage is growing, with the sport now found on BBC 1, Channel 5 and Sky. One host even, briefly, took part in Strictly Come Dancing.

Yet the eternal question for minority sports is whether they can gain long-term traction, and American football has been in a strong position in Britain before. Early adopters in the 1980s were not merely watching the Mick Luckhurst-fronted coverage on Channel 4, but entertained paying crowds at games. Rugby World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson and future Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton turned out for the Leicester Panthers. Alas, the wave rolled under and the game did not stick. Neither did NFL Europe in the 1990s, of which the London Monarchs and Scottish Claymores were members.

Pete Ackerley, the aforementioned new CEO of the British American Football Association (BAFA), has been installed to change that. His resume includes work at the England & Wales Cricket Board and the FA, and he joins a board of directors chaired by Nichole McCulloch, a long time executive in the energy and mining sectors. In a sport that has long been amateur, Mr Ackerley’s immediate aim is to establish a ten-year plan to evolve the professional structures needed to sustain its popularity.

“My aim is to professionalise our sport in total,” he says. “I don’t mean as in paying all players; I mean professionalising everything we do in our sport. Administratively – both on and off the field – and our playing structures.”

The plan will concentrate on four alliterative structures: participation, people, places, and pathway. Jargon dissected, that means getting footballs in more hands; improving the quality of coaches, referees and volunteers; securing better club structures and facilities; and producing a route so that football-playing children can become football-playing adults. It sounds eminently sensible. But can it be done?

Flag football: the frontier’s edge

Full contact American football has entry barriers. Merely finding a team and coaching is not always simple, and then the equipment is required – both for the player (a starter pack of helmet, jersey and pads is around £250) and the training. Without access to dedicated spaces in the UK, teams generally have to adopt other areas, such as rugby pitches. Parents can also be reticent to have their child take up a sport with high concussion implications.

It is for this reason that the flag version of the game is a key first step. Rather than heavy impact tackling, defending is done by stripping a flag from a ball-carrier’s belt, while attributes such as throwing, catching, covering and elusiveness remain. More importantly, the playing area can be any green space. At a community level, the flag can be the American football equivalent of pick-up basketball games or jumpers-for-goalposts football.

Unfortunately, people in the UK don’t know flag football. For Kenny Bello, a member of the GB flag team, that lack of knowledge was highly apparent when he was teaching the game at schools.

“When children were left alone, even with the ball at playtime or lunchtime, they didn’t have any clue what to do because there was no structured practice time or coach telling them. They would either end up playing rugby or just hoofing the ball as far as they could, as kids will do.”

Mr Bello decided, alongside GB Women’s captain Phoebe Schecter, to set up The UK Dukes in 2017. Significantly, The Dukes were not designed as a team or a training programme: instead, it was a brand. Similar to And1 in basketball, and the F2Freestylers in football, The Dukes’ aim was to make casual sport alluring by mixing fashion, skills and personality.

“The first set up we did was go to a basketball playground – we tried to find something that would be normal to the kids, so a concrete basketball playground in King’s Cross – with an American football.

It was just the two of us, and just tried one-handed catches, trying to throw it into the hoop. The idea was to hopefully show kids what to do if it is just you and a mate, or a couple of mates, with a ball, where you can play a game and still have fun trying different things.”

The style took off ‘as much as it can take off for what is still a niche sport in the UK’, and The Dukes is now at the forefront of promoting accessible American football in the UK. Purchasable apparel, a children’s book, and numerous videos – including guest appearances by Odell Beckham Jr and the Jacksonville Jaguars mascot – all continue to push the brand concept, but The Dukes remains primarily about getting people playing. It has a team, of sorts, that travels the country a la rugby’s Barbarians, and works as guest coaches for teams of any age. Importantly, the idea continues to utilise any free space.

“I’ve started working with a group of kids, young people, literally out on Peckham Rye,” says Mr Bello. “It’s just a free bit of space. I bring all the equipment we need to set up a field, and we just play and practice, plan and develop.

“We try to be very fluid and work with whatever the situation is, because not everyone has the money for a 3G field and changing rooms. We make things work.”

But with growth comes organisational issues. Mr Bello compares The Dukes currently to The Wizard of Oz, for behind the curtain it remains just him and Ms Schecter, albeit supported by a large network of people based at teams. Furthermore, being self-funded has limitations and, like BAFA, The Dukes is getting its ducks in a row for a more professional approach. This includes having a limited company supplemented by a community interest company (CIC) that is able to bid for funds. In order to have expanded community and schools work, applications will need to be made to Sport England.

For all the work Mr Bello and Ms Schecter are doing, there remains one key ingredient that is absent if people are going to take up the sport beyond organised teams. It is the one component all ball games need.

“Flag doesn’t cost: all you need is a gum shield, the same as rugby. You can literally have jumpers for goalposts. But the footballs. Where can people get footballs? Have them available in every JD Sports, Sports Direct. The more we can literally get just a football out there, that would create a big jump in participation.”

Flag football has a key role in making American football accessible to a larger segment of the British population, and groups such as The Dukes are vital for spreading the word. However, until it is as easy to throw an American football to a friend as it is to kick a football against a wall, the sport will have to be organised rather than grow organically.

Full contact hotspots and epic road trips

Robbie Paulin is the Youth Development Officer at the Highland Wildcats in Inverness, where full-contact American football is played at under-17 and under-19 levels. He also coaches and has written a book on American football coaching techniques. For him, BAFA employing somebody full-time is a big step forward: “Until somebody is full-time doing something, I don’t think you can be held accountable really.”

Nonetheless, running the UK’s northernmost full-contact team presents obstacles that are both different from the flag game and linked to geography. For one, player recruitment comes from a smaller population spread over a large catchment area. Getting the word into Inverness’s six high schools is an important part of this, but trends towards digital communication have reduced the traditional path of using a school’s daily notice.

“I don’t think that is getting read out as much,” Mr Paulin explains. “In some schools, it doesn’t even exist – it tends all to be on their laptops. So we’re trying to get to grips with how to really promote in schools now, how to get in.”

Direct contact with pupils is important in order to generate a first group of players that can encourage others to try their hand, especially as Mr Paulin notes the stigma around experimenting with new activities has increased in young people. For the Wildcats, capturing new players individually via marketing is less efficient than having a foothold in a peer group.

“The majority of promotion is word of mouth,” Mr Paulin believes. “I’m convinced it’s your mate who tells you to come along. Us being at the school at lunch is a chance for your mate to say ‘come along at lunch and have a chat with them’. All of a sudden, you have made that connection.”

One recruitment move the Wildcats have made in recent years is the Highland Academy Community League. Held in the dead time of January to March, this is an American football taster that involves Wildcats staff running midweek sessions in schools before students unite for training on Saturday. As the season starts in April, students can choose whether to continue or opt-out. Despite often being conducted in ‘the pissing snow’, Mr Paulin has seen the under-17 squad grow from 15 to 35.

While player recruitment is a local issue for any team, being situated in Inverness means the Wildcats, to an extreme degree, emphasise a larger problem faced by amateur leagues. Prisoners of geography, travel expenses range between £10 000 and £15 000 a year, with the Wildcats under-19s in a northern conference alongside teams from Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham. Few English teams have much interest in travelling further north than the Central Belt, leading to games at neutral grounds, and reaching the annual playoffs and Britbowl showcase can include plenty of team bonding on ten-hour road trips.

It is for this reason that Mr Paulin says the big priority for BAFA is establishing more teams, possibly via a full-time development officer. It is a desire that BAFA’s CEO shares.

“There are hotspots,” Mr Ackerley notes. “What we have to make sure now is that we create an ability to maintain that participation base in those key hotspots without making people travel huge distances to play.”

The elephant in the room: safety and equipment

Last year the Wildcats asked one of its members to stop playing. Suffering from repeat concussions, set off by small acute hits rather than full-bodied collisions, the team said it could not mitigate against all impacts. The player reluctantly agreed to stand down from the full-contact game, moving to flag and voluntary supporting roles within the organisation. Mr Paulin notes that concussion has changed the way safety in American football is viewed and managed.

“The concussion stuff is scary. The big thing used to be a spinal injury, and I think a coach would have to be so unlucky to ever see one of their players having a serious spinal issue.

Whereas a concussion, I would be surprised if every game there is not a player on that field that has some kind of concussion. Before a lot of safety things came in I would be surprised if there was not a concussion of some kind at least every game: somewhere on that field, between those two teams, there is probably some kind of concussion.”

Health issues are the opposite of what the Wildcats, and other teams, are trying to achieve. Indeed, the Inverness organisation prides itself on aiding mental health, giving youngsters the chance to work with a team, volunteer, travel the UK – and occasionally abroad – and find their direction. The experience should help participants improve confidence and even build a resume for finding a job, and Mr Paulin believes the game can have a positive risk-reward ratio for troubled teenagers in the way boxing is often depicted.

Ensuring safety is therefore as much for the good of the game’s spirit as it is the moral duty of the coaches.

“I don’t really want to ever be responsible for somebody having a really poor quality of life: that’s the complete opposite reason of why we are doing this. It’s to make sure people have good mental health, and can go on and develop confidence, and go on a get a job because of their involvement,” Mr Paulin says.

To help with that safety, ambulances must be present at all contact games, costing £160-£180 a time, and a study is being undertaken by universities to investigate all injuries in British American football. Ultimately, however, the general safety of players boils down to two key areas: technique, and equipment.

To improve the former, coaching has undertaken major changes. Tackling is now taught to copy a rugby-style called ‘thigh and drive’ (previously known as ‘hawk tackling’), which keeps the head clear, with ex-rugby union player Richie Gray now a guru within American football. Similarly, the ‘Tip of the Spear’ coaching programme, pioneered by ex-NFL offensive lineman Scott Peters under the motto ‘save the brain, save the game’, seeks to train high school and youth players on high performance-low concussion football. On top of this, the internet and transnational coaching links mean coaches in the UK, US, Canada and beyond no longer have to fly to coaching seminars to share information.

Equipment, meanwhile, continues to move forwards. Being too niche in the UK to warrant its own safety system, equipment in Britain adheres to the National Operating Committee on Standards of Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) from the US. However, the disparity between the US market and elsewhere means manufacturers are very much focused on American playing levels, where players hit harder. This has consequences for those British buyers not seeking premium prices while playing a lower level.

“The contact and the hitting in the European game is probably at a high school level. In Germany, probably a Division 3 or Division 2 level. The elite athlete in the NFL: nobody in Europe gets anywhere near that level of contact,” explains David Hagger, owner of equipment suppliers Football America UK.

“The frustrating thing is the entry-level helmets, which are about £250, will eventually disappear to go on to the £350 one. If you are a team, an amateur team, you haven’t got the money to buy this.”

Mr Hagger does believe entry level helmets shall remain available in the immediate future, but market forces will eventually prevail. “99% of the equipment sold is in the US. 1% is in Europe, Japan and everywhere else.”

Football America UK, which was established in 2008 and sells across Europe, had revenues of £2m and a staff of 13 prior to the coronavirus pandemic. This suggests there is a British market for American football, although Mr Hagger feels it has plateaued in the UK at present. This is primarily because teams have matured enough to maintain their own level of stock: rather than supplying 80 pieces of kit to a new team, orders are now smaller replacement batches done every few years. Higher growth is instead found in NFL merchandise (but not yet US college football merchandise, which is still anecdotally outsold 100 to 1) and to European players.

The current ceiling

Mr Hagger is one of Britain’s most experienced voices on American football. He started playing in 1983, also at the Leicester Panthers, having become a fan of the game in the 1970s. For him, the changes required to push British American football forwards are a case of chicken-and-egg: paying supporters could make the leagues self-sufficient, but that requires enticing player talent and coaching from the US, which in turn needs money. Meanwhile, any quality homegrown players would need to be in the States to maximise their potential, the athletic equivalent of a brain drain, as exemplified by Carolina Panther’s defensive end Efe Obada.

The Obada case, in many ways, highlights how far British American football still needs to travel. Unsurprisingly the limitations of Britain’s set up meant a talent like Obada was destined to leave, but the lack of public awareness of Obada’s story is curious. A trafficked Nigerian immigrant who slept rough on the streets of London as a child before going through the foster system, Obada had only played American football with the London Monarchs for 18 months before being given a workout by the Dallas Cowboys. Mr Hagger describes it as “probably one of the best, if not the best, sports stories about the NFL and the UK, and we hardly hear anything about it.”

Britain will never have a football structure to rival that in the US, where players like Obada are developed in their hundreds. The NFL generates $16bn a year and is fed by a college system that can attract both 100 000 fans to a stadium and 26m viewers to ESPN. That college system is, in turn, fed by high schools all around the nation. Yet for Mr Ackerley and BAFA there are workaround plans afoot. For one, a partnership with the Canadian Football League (CFL) has created a tentative pathway through the UK combine, the first of which was held in Bristol in January.

Combines are events at which players perform physical and mental tests in front of scouts, and three of the British players in January will now be able to perform at the CFL version. Similar routes are planned through the NFL International Pathway programme, giving UK players a genuine goal to be ‘combine readily’ and put themselves in the shop window.

Connected to this is the notion of producing talent is the age at which players enter the sport. In the UK many athletes only meet American football at university, an age when top sporting talent is generally already starting on their specific professional career. Picking up the game as swiftly as Efe Obada is an anomaly, and BAFA is now seeking to move that starting age down in order to have nuances engrained by the time people arrive at their teens.

For Mr Ackerley, it is a strong order of business.

“Lets get a ball in kids’ hands between five and nine years old. Let’s give them those real fundamental skills of running with the ball, and catching the ball, and throwing the ball. That’s the main thing.

And getting it into primary schools, working with flag football and non-contact versions so we get the skill levels high really early. A broad range of skill levels before we start getting them to specialise or putting helmets and pads on too early.

Getting that culture of good movement skills really early that captures their imagination.”

The plan is ambitious, and with ample work, it could happen. Yet the biggest question, above all these aims, is sustainability. Of the Wildcats, Mr Paulin says “We’re almost 90% to 95% grant funded.” Football America UK operates an additional service helping teams apply for grants to pay for equipment. The UK Dukes are applying for grants to expand. Without generating its own income, the game is open to governmental whims. Mr Ackerley recognises it too:

“One of the things we have to do is slowly and gradually make sure that we have a sustainable future,” he admits. He says that after fixing participation and pathways, the game needs to build the ability to create commercial income, including an engaging digital platform. The solution is not now, but eventually, British American football will require a marketable media product and getting fans into stadia.

More than just the NFL

Of course, nobody is in stadia at present due to COVID-19. BAFA has agreed a six-stage ‘return to play’ roadmap with the government, but having reached stage four in England, the process was sunk back to stage one by the recent lockdown. In what could be a long game of snakes and ladders, the final square is the return of the full-contact version of the game, hoping to be achieved by the season’s start in April. Ironically it is Inverness, due to its relative isolation, that may enjoy the earliest return – at least for a friendly game with the Lossiemouth flag team.

Yet whilst the frustrations of not playing will exist, the time in what Mr Ackerley describes as ‘the longest pre-season in history’ is not being wasted. Getting coaching techniques and organisational structures up to speed is actually easier in the downtime, and online coaching platforms – including a coaching app aimed for January – are being developed. BAFA, meanwhile, has just published its first annual report and held its AGM on October 31st in which strategies were discussed for the flag, schools, universities, national and women’s games. Flag football, in particular, will be seen as a marketable entry-level arm.

When the game returns it will have to be seen whether flag and the rest of the ten-year plan are able to carry American football to where it wants to be. Those 14 000 registered players should return, and the likes of Mr Bello and Mr Paulin will again seek to make the game as visible in schools and parks as it is on television. Step-by-step the aim is to convert passive consumption into active participation, and ensure the term American football is not simply synonymous with professional American teams like the 49ers, Cowboys and Giants.

The loitering danger for British American football has always that it becomes no more than an NFL fanbase, a gridiron version of Asia’s love of the EPL: economically profitable fandom, driven by shirt sales, from which grassroots development fails to materialise. If Mr Ackerley and others can succeed where others have tried, 2030 should showcase a sport that is deeper than its present wave of popularity.

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