(Reuters) - The National Football League holds its annual draft on Thursday and while the lockdown version means it will be online rather than the planned glitzy show in Las Vegas, there will be plenty of fans outside of the United States following along.
Interest in the NFL has grown significantly in Britain over the past decade. Next season the Jacksonville Jaguars will play two of their home games at London’s Wembley Stadium while two other regular season games will be held at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in North London.
For the growing army of NFL fans in the United Kingdom though, outside of seeing who the Jags pick, there is no local interest in the draft. Despite all the talk, there is still no sign of a British franchise in the league nor is there any homegrown talent in the draft.
But there is certainly no shortage of effort being made to produce British gridiron talent capable of enjoying a career in the NFL.
“Ultimately our dream is for players to have a pathway to reach the NFL draft,” said Pete Ackerley, CEO of the British American Football Association (BAFA).
“We need to grow our participation base so that we are not just producing an odd player here and there. We need to make it a regular process.
“For that young British lad who dreams of being in the NFL we have to build a system, the playing bit, the workforce, the right coaches, make sure the league we provide is of the appropriate standard. Our league is completely amateur.”
The BAFA National Leagues feature 62 teams, with the top tier Premier Division concluding with the BritBowl, won last year by London Warriors, one of three teams from the capital who have dominated the sport.
The BritBowl is played in front of a smattering of fans at the humble 5,000-capacity New River athletics stadium.
A long punt down the road at Tottenham Hotspur’s gleaming 61,000-seat soccer stadium, two regular-season NFL games were staged last year with the Oakland Raiders beating Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers beating Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The game is growing at University and youth level too but as encouraging as the progress is, the chances of a player emerging from that level of competition and being ready to enter the NFL are extremely slim.
“We are playing at kindergarten level and they are at post-graduate degree level,” says Andrew Morgan, a coach with the Great Britain Under-19 team.
But the NFL loves a good story, of a player overcoming adversity to reach the top and it is also a league that remains keen to spread its influence internationally. While the draft requires players to have come from the college system, there are other ways in.
The NFL has opened an academy in London for young talent and has an established International Player Pathway Program which has already seen some British players earn contracts with clubs.
Former London Warriors defensive end Efe Obada has broken into the league with the Carolina Panthers after spells with the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.
Tight-end Christian Scotland-Williamson, from Waltham Forest, has been with the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2018 having begun his career in rugby union with Worcester Warriors.
Another former rugby player, Christian Wade, who was capped by England, is on the Buffalo Bills’ roster.
London-born Jack Crawford is a defensive end for Tennessee Titans, while Jermaine Eluemunor is a guard for New England Patriots, although both moved to the U.S. as teenagers and went through the college-system.
Will Bryce, the NFL’s Head of Football Development, believes that the example of Obada and Wade is inspiring a new generation.
“I think the more that players can have success through the pathway program, the more you are going to find kids motivated to go down that route. They will see there are some opportunities,” said Bryce.
One British player who might appear in the draft is Londoner Bamidele Olaseni, who plays offensive tackle for the University of Utah.
At six foot seven, 330 lbs, he was the number 10 ranked offensive tackle in the country when he was recruited from junior college team Garden City Broncbusters.
Bryce, who regularly meets with NFL teams and works closely with players looking to break into the NFL, feels that ‘Bam’ as the Utah fans know him, has a chance to go all the way.
“He has done it the hard way, he has all the talent in the world and he is huge which helps with his position. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up doing something special and finds himself in the NFL in the next couple of years.”
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge