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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 27 August, 2015

With the NFL a distant dream, college football is more than a consolation

Yesterday’s Croke Park Classic launch was just a taster of what could be for American football in Ireland.

The launch of the Croke Park Classic took place on Sunday.
The launch of the Croke Park Classic took place on Sunday.
Image: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

HERE’S A SCENARIO for you to consider as you go about your business today.

The NFL, particularly Commissioner Roger Goodell, decides to ramp up the sport’s expansion into Europe by replacing an existing team with a London one.

Let’s call the team the London Jaguars because, well, that’s a famous British car brand and not at all a struggling Florida franchise.

Anyway, this London team will be predominantly based at Wembley Stadium, but decides, as Europe’s only team, that it should play one or two home games a year in other cities such a Frankfurt, Paris, maybe even Dublin.

That may seem a fanciful scenario but it is, I believe, Ireland’s best hope of hosting a regular season NFL game in the next decade or so.

However, there is a very exciting, not to mention lucrative, alternative right under our nose and the GAA have taken the first steps to tapping into it with Sunday’s launch of the Croke Park Classic.

While few but the most ardent college football fans will know about the University of Central Florida (UCF), many more will be aware of Penn State, even if that is for the wrong reasons.

Speaking to on Sunday, Athletics Director Dave Joyner said that, while Penn State will never forget, and continue to support, the victims of the Sandusky scandal, their focus is now on rebuilding a football team that have twice been national champions.

“I think our players and fans will be incredibly excited about this game. We won’t have been to a Bowl game in a couple of years at that stage so it’s something for everyone involved with Penn State to get behind.”

Those fans are likely to be hugely important for the success of the Croke Park Classic.

As reported last week, it is my understanding that there are a number of games in the pipeline but, for them to happen, fans will have to travel in large numbers from the States. A number of factors make me believe they will.

Firstly, Penn State’s Beaver stadium is the second largest in the US with a capacity of 106,572 and their average home attendance in 2012 was 96,730.

Secondly, Penn State’s fans won’t have the cost of travelling to any Bowl games in the coming seasons so this represents a chance for them to experience that kind of atmosphere.

Speaking of Bowl games, a season opener abroad will attract TV networks the way last year’s Emerald Isle Classic did and those high profile TV slots mean big paydays for teams. Indeed, I can already imagine the TV storyline for next year’s game will likely be the fact that Penn State’s Head Coach, Bill O’Brien, worked under UCF’s George O’Leary for six years.

“It will be great to coach against Coach O’Brien,” said O’Leary when I asked him about the prospect of opening their 2014 season in Croke Park, “and maybe the venue will neutralise things.”

Finally, while attendances at NFL games have fallen slightly over the past six years, NCAA football attendance is actually up by nearly 11% showing that fans want to see games live.

UCF Head Coach George O’Leary (left) with Penn State’s Dave Joyner and players in UCF and Penn State uniforms.
Image: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

A home crowd

Of course, for any game to succeed here, it’s not just travelling fans who’ll need to attend and the GAA will have to capture the imagination of an Irish audience too and they’ve made a good start my making a limited number of tickets available for immediate sale.

However, they’ll also have to be clever and continue to court high profile teams like Penn State, Notre Dame and even the likes of Alabama and Michigan State.

These top teams attract the top talent and, while it’s not the NFL, there is immense quality on show. Penn State, for example, had no fewer than 28 former players plying their trade in the NFL in 2012.

Ultimately though, money talks.  With last year’s Emerald Isle Classic estimated to have made €25m for the local economy, it’s in everyone’s interests to see these games succeed and the more that is invested in attracting marquee teams, the easier it is sell those games to a growing audience of American football fans here and in Europe as a whole.

College football might not have the glamour of an NFL fixture, but I’d much rather watch Penn State or Alabama than the Jaguars or Vikings.

It’s now up to the GAA to make other people feel the same way.

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