Weekend Interview: Osi Umenyiora flying the flag for NFL growth in the UK

Two time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora at NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Two time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora at NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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In a country where football rules, where an Ashes series 10,000 miles away dominates the agenda, and in which two different codes of rugby compete for their slice of the attention, it becomes apparent just how daunting a marketplace that is to break into.

Any aspiring sport would need a structured strategy over a sustained period of time; one that includes exposure to the sport through live games, superstar brand ambassadors to promote the product and perhaps most crucial of all, a grass roots initiative that targets future interest in children.

The National Football League is one such sport trying to break into the English sporting conscience, and one that, it has to be said, is doing a fine job.

Even the most ardent opponent of American football – who would argue that its protagonists are not as tough as our rugby players because they wear helmets, or that the games take too long with too many stoppages – can not ignore for too much longer just how much the sport is taking off in this country.

First broadcast on our screens in the 1980s to what was then a cult following, the NFL is now a brand that has lucrative televisions contracts with free-to-air and satellite providers, plus four regular-season games a year in our national stadiums that are sold out every time.

Helping drive that interest is a former player who scaled the very heights of the game without having the traditional upbringing of the vast majority of his fellow past, present and future NFL stars in the heartland of America.

Touchdown: One of the 100 children taking part in flag football drills at the John Charles Centre this week. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Touchdown: One of the 100 children taking part in flag football drills at the John Charles Centre this week. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Osi Umenyiora was born in London, moved to Nigeria at the age of seven, and headed to the United States aged 14 to live with his sister and pursue a better education. He did not play American football until he was 15, and yet won two Super Bowl titles with the New York Giants in an NFL career that spanned 12 years.

Now, arguably, his contribution to the sport is even greater than it was in his playing days. Because the gregarious, larger-than-life Umenyiora has become the face of the BBC’s NFL highlights package, his contributions along with those of fellow ex-pro Jason Bell and host Mark Chapman proving both insightful to the discerning NFL fan and educational to the armchair punter turning on for the first time.

As a public broadcaster, it is exactly the balance the BBC should be striking, and just what the NFL needs to promote their sport in a marketplace they are eager to conquer.

And Umenyiora, for one very determined individual, is certain they will do just that.

The NFL has done a fantastic job with grassroots, trying to introduce flag football into different places and get more eyes on the sport, and it’s clearly been working. It’s such a fantastic game that it shouldn’t just be contained in America.

Osi Umenyiora

“The sport has grown exponentially from the first time I came over here to work,” the former Giants pass rusher told The Yorkshire Post.

“The show we do on the BBC is the main driver for the sport because it’s a public network and people have eyes on it, so if they see something they like they’re going to become more engaged.

“I don’t see why the NFL can’t find a place in this competitive market. We have great respect for all these other sports, but the NFL is something completely different. It’s something a lot of people haven’t really seen.

“I would say this wouldn’t I – but I think it’s the best sport in the world. Why, because it has so many variables, so many moving parts. Everybody can play it whether you’re big, small, skinny, large, whatever – there’s a position out there for you, and it brings kids of all different backgrounds together and interact with each other.”

Two time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell, stars of the BBC NFL show at the NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Two time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell, stars of the BBC NFL show at the NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Bringing kids of all different backgrounds together was the motivation for Umenyiora and Bell this past Wednesday when they visited the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds to launch the NFL Flag programme.

More than 100 children from schools across the city took part in non-contact flag football drills with Umenyiora and Bell joining players from the Leeds University and Leeds Beckett University teams in teaching American football novices a few starting techniques.

“It is very special for me to begin the expansion of NFL Flag across the UK and Ireland to a wider group of schools,” said Umenyiora. “One of our main aims is to get as many children to experience American football as possible, while taking key skills around teamwork and sportsmanship off the field and into every part of their school and private lives.”

Eleven thousand children have signed up to the programme in London and Leeds is the first stop on the NFL’s nationwide recruitment process.

“A lot of people were calling from up this area to bring the NFL up north and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” said Umenyiora, in relation to the urging of the city’s two universities to help them promote the sport in Yorkshire. “It’s great to see the kids enjoying it. This is a good area for us to springboard what we are trying to do.

“The NFL has done a fantastic job with grassroots, trying to introduce flag football into different places and get more eyes on the sport, and it’s clearly been working. It’s such a fantastic game that it shouldn’t just be contained in America.”

Osi Umenyiora at the NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Osi Umenyiora at the NFL UKs flag football programme launch event at the John Charles Sport Centre, Leeds. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

The non-contact element of NFL Flag is key to its potential. Concussion is a growing concern in not just American football, but all sports nowadays, and Umenyiora believes getting to future players at an early age is vital in combatting the condition and not turning children away from his beloved sport.

“I’m of the opinion that kids seven to eight-years-old shouldn’t be playing contact sports of any kind, whether it’s football, rugby, boxing, they don’t need to be doing that,” he said.

“You need to let your brain develop a bit more before you start to do that. What the sport needs to do is focus on proper tackling techniques, proper hitting techniques. I played 12 years and never suffered one concussion but that’s because I would never lead with my head, I would always keep my head up.

“As long as they focus on that you’ll be able to stay away from more of the violent collisions.”

With such conscientious ambassadors, the future of the NFL in this country is in safe hands. Whose to say Umenyiora would not play a role in delivering an NFL franchise in London, as has so often been mooted. With each passing clutch of games in the capital, the NFL gets closer to answering the logistical questions posed by having one team play 3,000 miles away from it’s closest rival across the pond.

Umenyiora backs the idea of a team in the UK – “if they can figure out how to put a man on the moon, they can put an NFL team in London” – which would further help the NFL muscle in on its share of the UK market.

“It’s a challenge for the NFL to establish itself in the UK, but I was born here, I didn’t start playing football until I was 15 and I made it to the NFL,” he said. “Our focus is on getting people to understand what’s going on and when they do, they’ll love it too.”

NFL Flag is brought to you by Subway and is being rolled out nationwide. To become an NFL Flag school go http://www. http://www.nfluk.com/events/subway-schools

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