Irish interest in NFL heats up as league scouts more international cities to stage games

Irish football
Kicker Mark Jackson of Ireland runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine, Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Indianapolis.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

By KEN MAGUIRE AP Sports Writer

Several hundred thousand Irish viewers got a tutorial from Charlie Smyth on the difference between lining up a kick in Gaelic football versus a field goal in American football.

Smyth, who had just signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints, humbly told “The Late Late Show’s” national audience that an NFL kicker has to react quickly.

“You don’t have all day to look at the ball,” the 22-year-old Smyth explained. “You just have to go and kick it.”

Almost as quickly, Ireland has become part of the NFL’s international playbook. With Irish interest in the sport rising, Dublin is under review to potentially join the league’s growing list of international cities hosting a regular-season game.

“We’ve seen in the last 12 to 24 months quite a surge of interest there,” Henry Hodgson, general manager of the NFL’s UK office, said of Irish social media activity, merchandise sales, ticket purchases to London games and Super Bowl ratings.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers struck up a partnership with the influential Gaelic Athletic Association to coincide with the NFL giving the team marketing rights in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Jacksonville Jaguars also have the same rights, and the New York Jets added Ireland this year.

There’s also a new wave of GAA players getting NFL shots as kickers. Smyth signed a three-year deal with the Saints after coming through the league’s International Player Pathway program in the same class as Louis Rees-Zammit. Jude McAtamney of Rutgers signed with the New York Giants, and Mark Jackson kicked at the Steelers’ rookie minicamp.

To reflect the Irish trend, the NFL changed its UK social media handles to include Ireland. The Steelers, Jaguars and Jets also all went on location in Ireland to announce one of their NFL draft picks last month.

“Having a presence at all is such a massive change from even where it was 10 years ago,” said Stevie Howlin, a software engineer and Jaguars fan who announced the draft pick from Dublin. “Say if you wanted to buy a jersey, you’d have to go all over Cork — where I was living at the time — to try and find it and there was never any guarantee you would find one, whereas now most sports stores have NFL jerseys.”

The NFL will be in Dublin, too, this summer to inspect Croke Park and Aviva Stadium.

Five games will be played internationally in 2024 and the league plans to increase to eight or nine by 2025. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he envisions playing 16 games internationally on an annual basis eventually.

The Steelers played the Chicago Bears in the 1997 preseason at Croke Park. The GAA-owned stadium has a capacity of 82,300.

Aviva, which holds 51,700, has been hosting college football games for several years.

“There’s a feasibility study, as we would call it, in a number of different European cities and Dublin is one of those,” Hodgson said. “Looking at the stadiums, taking local meetings … we’ll take away all of that information, digest it and determine what the next steps are.

“That’s something that’s happening in Dublin, it’s happening in Paris for example, and a number of other cities around the world as well,” he added.

GAA spokesman Alan Milton said the organization — which is hugely influential in Irish society — would be “most welcoming of any event here” but added that a regular-season game is the preference as “the next natural step.” It would provide not only a revenue boost for the amateur organization but also international exposure for the stadium, which holds historical significance in Ireland’s fight for independence.

Brazil is hosting its first NFL game this upcoming season when the league hold three games in England and one game in Germany. Spain will be added to the list in 2025.

As international consumer markets go, Ireland would be by far the smallest of the lot so far.

“At the moment we’re really considering more the depth of fandom and the opportunity to grow the fanbase in the market rather than looking at the revenue,” Hodgson said.

Other European locations will be considered, though Hodgson declined to specify more cities.

“We continue to look at and have interest in all the major cities across Europe. For now, Paris, Dublin — obviously we’re heading into Madrid in 2025 — those are the ones we’re most focused on in Europe,” he said.

The Spain game will be played at Real Madrid’s renovated Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, which includes a soccer pitch that retracts to make way for an artificial turf field that can be used for American football. Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has a similar system.

The Philadelphia Eagles will face the Green Bay Packers at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sept. 6 — on the eve of Brazil’s Independence Day.

Though the stadium capacity is under 50,000, Brazil offers the NFL a massive market. Research group IBOPE Repucom estimates the NFL has more than 30 million fans in soccer-mad Brazil.

NFLBrasil on Instagram has 903,000 followers — highest among the league’s international accounts on the platform. About 2.5 million Brazilians watched last year’s Super Bowl, according to TV ratings groups.

The NFL had been priming its two latest international destinations — it sent Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson to Brazil last offseason to visit Vinicius Junior, a Brazilian who plays for Real Madrid. It has 4.5 million views on Youtube.

AP Sports Writer Mauricio Savarese contributed from Brazil.