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NFL ‘combine’ has become a key pillar in gridiron’s global marketing strategy | Paul MacInnes

NFL ‘combine’ has become a key pillar in gridiron’s global marketing strategy

Hopefuls from the UK, Germany, Japan and across the world have a shot at glory via the International Player Pathway

Paul MacInnes
at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Wed 13 Oct 2021 03.00 EDT

Doing shuttle sprints in the north London drizzle might seem a long way from the razzamatazz of the NFL, but maybe that’s the point. For the 50 athletes competing at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the chance of a golden ticket to the world’s most lucrative sports league, this was just one more step on a long journey.

Adedayo Odeleye’s story is a case in point. One of the dozens of tall, variously muscular individuals who had flown in from all over the world to take part in the day-long trial known as the “NFL combine”, and the 23-year-old has a clear-eyed sense of the job in hand. Born in Nigeria and raised in the UK, he was spotted by NFL scouts as a student player at Loughborough University. He did his first combine last year, a pandemic-disrupted affair that took him to a training camp in Florida and ended with him signing for the European League of Football side, Berlin Thunder. One year and one place on the European all-star team later, he’s back and ready to prove he’s completed his education.

“I appreciate being afforded this opportunity but I know exactly what type of talent I’ve got and I’m really hoping to go further this time,” he says as others let out growls of exertion behind him. “Football is a business at the end of the day. I’ve been told by several people that I have the physical attributes to make it to the league, I just have to be able to realise that myself. I feel like if I’m given the platform, then I’ll shine.”

In part the brainchild of Osi Umenyiora, the Super Bowl‑winning defensive end turned BBC NFL pundit, the scheme known as the International Player Pathway began in 2017 and is now well integrated into the sport (if complicatedly so). Last year four athletes made it through the combine, then a Florida training camp and a pro day competition against US-based hopefuls before being signed by an NFL side. The IPP can now even point to a standout success story: Jordan Mailata, the Australian former rugby league pro turned offensive tackle who signed a four-year, $64m contract with the Philadelphia Eagles last month.

Most players, however, don’t make it past the practice roster, and there are significant hurdles in the way of any athlete who tries, not least the lack of a lifelong grounding in the sport. “The one thing that I’ve noticed is that with international players, there’s always this stigma that ‘oh he’s from the UK, he doesn’t know how to play properly’,” says Odeleye. “You have to use that chip on your shoulder to show exactly why you belong in an NFL team and why you belong on the roster.”

The Atlanta Falcons took on New York Jets at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday.

It’s not just the background and the technique they might be lacking, but the basic physicality. The players trying out in Tottenham come from locations as varied as Japan, Hungary and Nigeria, and play for teams with names such as Seinajoki Crocodiles and Hamburg Sea Devils. Many of them have the requisite heft, some have the agility, but few have both. Watching some of the players trying to shimmy left, right and backwards on the demands of the imported NFL assessors is enough to provoke sympathy for this band of giants.

A lack of glamour aside (it is not much of a spectator event, it has to be said) there is a Hollywood quality to the combine. It is the hero’s quest and an eye for the bottom line in combination. Brett Gosper, head of Europe and the UK for the NFL, is clear about why it exists. “Any player who becomes an NFL star is great for our game internationally,” he says. “If some of these stars make it and they originate from UK or Germany or any of the other markets, it spikes huge interest in those markets and grows that fanbase. It’s all part of expanding our footprint globally.”

There are a lot of German players at the combine and, following Mexico and London, the country is next on the list for NFL expansion. A new German city to host an NFL game next year will be announced at the Super Bowl in February. For Gosper, the physical presence in new countries allows the sport to grow in any number of ways, but bringing players into the game in the US is another increasingly important strand.

“This is a complex sport versus football [soccer], so what is important is that it has high visibility,” Gosper says. “The relationships we have in this country with BBC and Sky are very important at getting that word out and then the games themselves provide extra tangibility. But visibility, that’s the first step and the players provide that.”

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