Outside of the US, the juggernaut league has traditionally focused on the UK along with occasional games in Mexico and this year introducing a fixture in Germany.But in recent seasons, Australia’s persistent interest in the game proved too hard to ignore.Charlotte Offord, who spent a decade at the league’s London office, said the NFL-run research study called the ‘international fan tracker’ helped crystallise the opportunity Down Under.The data was so convincing that it turned Offord into the inaugural NFL general manager of Australia and New Zealand. “There was organic fan growth happening in the market,” Offord said in an interview with News Corp. “We thought, hang on a minute, there is actually traction happening. What could happen if we actually put money and resources into the market to grow it?”Offord has wasted no time finding out.Last month, the NFL implemented its first flag football tournament (instead of tackling, ‘downs’ are achieved by removing a flag from the ball carrier) between schools on the Gold Coast, with winner Varsity College rewarded with a trip to Las Vegas for February‘s Pro Bowl. “We’ve had success implementing flag football in the market – probably more than I expected would happen as quickly as it happened,” said Offord, who also posted to LinkedIn that the tournament was “just the beginning”.“We’re working on starting at a grassroots level to really understand what the appetite is like for participation.“To pick up a new sport isn’t that hard for them because they’re already playing Aussie rules or rugby league, so things like hand-eye coordination, physicality and being able to run and pass are all things Aussie kids grow up learning quite young.”The grassroots push is expected to feed both Australia’s burgeoning fan interest in the game but also the development of athletes who could one day play in the NFL themselves.Aspiring American footballers don’t have to look too far for inspiration, particularly Aussie rules punting hopefuls – which there was already a pathway for through independent organisation ProKick.However, the league is devising ways to establish clearer pathways for athletes suited to other positions to support its international player program, which recently brought in two Australian prospects in Patrick Murtagh (former Gold Coast Suns) and Talitiga Amosa (former rugby prospect). “We can’t look past the fact that there is an incredible amount of talent on this side of the world. We are looking at how we develop that talent at a younger age and bring them on a pathway through,” Offord said. “There are also those that need some development from an NFL perspective but are already seasoned athletes that could in theory go into an NFL team now.“Jordan Mailata (former rugby league prospect turned offensive tackle) is probably the poster boy for Australia for that. He’s now on a very hefty contract for the Philadelphia Eagles.”As is former St Kilda player Arryn Siposs, who established himself as the Super Bowl contenders’ starting punter albeit recently injured his ankle. Incidentally, the Eagles were recently chosen by the NFL as one of two teams given a green light to freely market in Australia, alongside the Los Angeles Rams. Meanwhile, Offord has also led discussions on the possibility of staging an NFL game in Australia – but fans shouldn’t get their hopes up just yet. “I’d love to bring a game down here. (But) there’s a lot of logistics, a lot of factors that go into how you operationally bring a game into market and still keep it fair.“It certainly has been a discussion point, but it’s not in the plan right now. “Everyone wants a game down here – it does show that there is an appetite for it.”HOW AUSSIE ATHLETES CAN LAUNCH A CAREERPUNTERS AND KICKERSTypically products of Aussie rules, those with booming boots can look to ProKick. Assessments conducted year-round and available in each major city. Assessments cost $100 and goes for 1-2 hours. Big strong kick or great skill and placement as well as ‘great character’ required. 185 punters have graduated from ProKick into US colleges. WHO HAS MADE IT?Arryn Siposs, Mitch Wishnowsky, Michael Dickson and Cameron Johnston all cemented spots as NFL starting punters in recent times. Ben Graham, Saverio Rocca and ProKick head coach Nathan Chapman are historic examples. OTHER POSITIONS – LINEMEN, RUNNING BACKS, TIGHT ENDS ETCSeasoned athletes (but still less than 24 years old) can vie for the NFL’s international player pathway program. Size, strength and explosiveness make these positions a prospect typically for those who grew up playing rugby codes. The NFL has scouts in the Australian market looking for athletes to invite to international combines. The league is currently looking at devising a clearer program for teenage/young athletes.WHO HAS MADE IT?Jordan Mailata and Daniel Faalele are examples of big-bodied rugby converts who have made the NFL as linemen through the international pathway program. Talitiga Amosa and Etuale Lui were recently selected having been rugby prospects as junior athletes. Height (190cm-plus) and big frame (130kg-plus) are important linemen attributes. Though rare, rugby league fullbacks show similar characteristics to American football running backs. Valentine Holmes played pre-season games for the New York Jets in 2019, while Jarryd Hayne was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2015. Former Gold Coast Suns-listed player Patrick Murtagh has also been selected for this year’s pathway program as a tight-end, with height, a strong vertical leap, speed and size all vital.GRASSROOTSThe NFL’s first flag championship in Australia between schools on the Gold Coast exceeded expectations and garnered positive feedback from teachers. With winner Varsity College off to Las Vegas for the Pro Bowl, the carrot will be dangling for other students to give the new sport a crack.
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