Growing the game: how NFL can help American football flourish in Britain - from flag football to player development
“It’s about using the London series as a clear focal point for our sport,” says British American Football Association CEO Pete Ackerley
When Pete Ackerley took on the reins of British American Football Association (BAFA), few could have predicted the first 18 months in post at the head of the sport’s governing body.
A global pandemic wiped out the grassroots and non-professional sport scene across the UK and endangered the existence of community institutions across all levels of different sports.
Professional clubs suffered, too, as their leagues were brought to a temporary halt and usual sources of income disappeared quickly at a time when outgoings were starting to mount up.
Some, even established clubs, have not recovered.
For American football, it meant bringing a swift end to the 2020 season before a kick or throw of the football had been made, as the country got to grips with the initial outbreak of the virus.
A decision to firstly postpone the campaign until the summer was made around the same time the Cheltenham Festival attracted criticism for going ahead with spectators in attendance.
Following consultation with the clubs and regular dialogue with the government, it was soon clear that a mid-July start date wasn’t possible either under the restrictions at that time.
An announcement followed in May that the season was over before it had even begun.
‘In many ways we’re starting again’
The enforced break gave BAFA and its newly appointed chief executive officer a chance to take stock of the organisation and make plans for the next 10 years to grow the game.
“In many ways we're starting again,” says Pete, via a video call with NationalWorld.com.
“We've been able to have a good look internally at the organisation and reset a lot of things. It has given us a chance to reset, review, reconsider and get to the real priorities.”
Among the top priorities for the sport’s governing body was establishing a long-term vision for American football in Britain not solely based around government funding.
“We wanted to create a long term ambition and strategy or the game. Strategies tend to be three or four years, probably based on an amount of funding the sport has got or is about to get.
“The break gave us a chance to take a real long term view - a 10-year vision for the sport.
“The one thing it has shown us is that if the sport is going to be successful and sustainable in the long term we have to professionalise everything we do on and off the field,” he says.
Building strong foundations
Pete is no stranger to professional sport environments.
Before joining BAFA, he was head of development at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and head of participation at the Football Association (FA).
His home office is evidence of a career spanning 30 years in sport administration roles, with signed cricket bats, framed football shirts and a New York Giants jacket.
Pete’s love of the Giants stretches back even longer to the early 1980s when he’d watch the National Football League (NFL) on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons.
Now the self-confessed “sports anorak” wants to use his three decades of experience and passion for the sport to help establish BAFA in line with other governing bodies.
“Our vision is to professionalise our game and inspire more people to play and play a part,” he says. “We've got to be a high performing national governing body of sport.”
American football in Britain is classed as an amateur sport with its income coming solely from its membership base, which had half of their funds returned in 2020.
“Just because we don't have a huge amount of income and massive financial resources doesn't mean we can't be highly professional in how we approach every aspect of being a national governing body and how we develop our sport.
“When I say professionalise, people think we're going to pay all the players - that may be in time something we look to do to have a semi-professional or professional aspect to the game, but I mean in how we approach our relationships with our key stakeholders, how we approach our negotiations and partnership with Sport England, Scotland and Wales - the home sports councils who help fund many other sports. They don't fund our sport.
“It's enabling us to put ourselves in the shop window.
“One of the things I said to our membership from very early is if we want to be taken seriously as a sport we have to get the foundations right - and that's essentially been the last 12 months where I've been building really strong foundations,” says Pete.
Putting a flag in the ground
Upon those foundations, Pete sees flag football as an integral part of growing the game.
Flag football is a non-contact version of American football, touted as a simplified version of the full-contact game, more accessible for all ages and cheaper to run.
“Contact football is hugely important to us, particularly for our universities and our club structure, but because of the very nature of contact - and the high levels of contact - it has to be done in a very safe and coached environment,” he says.
“Flag we can grow, I think massively, and we’ll be working with the NFL in the UK to make sure flag football is the real focus of our development and the NFL’s development.
“It’ll become the sport we use in schools - that will be where we put a ball in each child’s hands - it’s safe, easy to organise, not complex for teachers and it’s something we can create inside many other sports clubs in this country.
“We can start to become part and parcel of the fabric of sport in this country and it’s just a further offer for young people.
“For me, it’s about the inclusivity of male and female playing side by side.”
Around 100,000 kids in British schools currently have access to flag football through NFL programmes which include pro franchise Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pete wants to see those numbers increase by building a strong link between BAFA, schools and local clubs to ensure continued participation through different age groups.
“That’s the real focus - to build,” says Pete.
“Rather than building our own infrastructure of American football or flag football deliverers, let’s use the workforces that are already out there in different sports.
“We’ll teach them how to deliver flag football and they’ll be able to take it into the wide range of schools because we know from our research that headteachers want a variety of sports in school, not just football, cricket or athletics.
“American football brings a slightly different option - the kids have seen it - and we want to show them how to play a safe version of the game with boys and girls mixed together.”
There is even a campaign to have flag football part of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“Once you start to look at that then it starts to change the mindset of governments and funders,” says Pete. “If there's a sport we could win medals in, in LA in 2028.”
Joining the club
To maintain participation - and achieve the aim of rivaling the popularity of rugby in Britain in 10 years time - BAFA sees university as a “hotbed” for garnering interest.
“Our biggest focus for the kitted contact game will be university football.
“That’s going to be our hotbed where it’ll be the first chance a lot of them will get to join the American football societies.
“There’s a lot of razzamatazz with football, there’s music, there’s cheerleading, there’s fireworks, there’s a tailgate experience before the game - as soon as you bring all the other elements from around the game, that’s what we’ve got to make sure we encapsulate.
“We’re not going to just replicate what America are doing - this is British American Football - we will put our own stamp on things,” he says.
One of the draws to American football is its inclusivity, says Pete.
“You don’t have to be 6’8” and really quick. There are lots of different skill sets required in different positions which assimilate into a team,” he says.
BAFA wants to see more females take up the sport to help maintain high levels of performance internationally - Great Britain women were runners up at the 2015 European Championships.
“What we need now is to build that base of participation so we can create that pull through and that’s where universities and colleges will be important for the women’s game.
“We want to see people transition from other sports, which is going to be equally important in the women's game, offering it as an alternative to something else.
“There’s a position for everyone in terms of playing the game of American football,” adds Pete.
Having a seat at the table
BAFA’s reputation has already spread to the NFL’s London headquarters where the governing body now has a desk to work from among the big league’s UK representatives.
For Pete, it will mean tapping into the NFL for support in areas such as coaching, player development and the growth of flag football in both Britain and America.
Working with the NFL and Canadian Football League (CFL) is key to BAFA’s vision - as is the continuation of staging NFL games in London.
“It’s about using the London series as a clear focal point,” says Pete. “It’s about using that and talking about the other aspects of the game here.
“Whether it be football in schools, flag football for boys and girls, participation elements and talking about the partnership.
“We want to use it to wave a flag and say ‘there is a governing body for British American Football and these are the things we are starting to do and looking to do - please come and be a part of it’.
“As well as being a great opportunity to promote football in Britain it’s also an ability to shout about what we do on the back of the noise and the eyeballs on the game.”
One of British sport’s ‘best kept secrets’
BAFA’s 10-year vision includes establishing an inclusive and friendly environment, increasing participation, supporting the volunteer workforce, investing in clubs and their venues, and creating a progressive player pathway.
“I’m putting the players and participants at the heart of every decision we make,” says Pete, including attracting funding, sponsorship and commercial interests.
“All the things I will do will be right for British American football then we’ll see if it’s investible for Sport England, Scotland or Wales or other key stakeholders.
“That’s the strategy and I think that way is far more sustainable in the long term.
“British American football is one of the best kept secrets in sport in this country.
“The people involved in the sport are hugely passionate, hugely driven, hugely focused on doing the right things. It’s my job to give that some direction and bring sports business elements to it.
“We can take the sport to some really big places and I think the alignment to the brands like the NFL and the CFL will benefit us and, who knows if there will be a London franchise down the line - but that’s where people should be looking towards.”
As sports restart and clubs begin to recover from lockdown measures, BAFA will look to ensure American football in Britain won’t be a secret for much longer.