The definition of the term ‘Football’ changes drastically over the 3,300 miles separating Liverpool and New Jersey, the supposed birthplace of one of America’s favourite sports.

the Nighthawks’ ‘O-Line’

Interest has been steadily growing in the UK since 2007, where the first NFL game took place at Wembley in front of a sold-out crowd of 82,000 people. 16 years and 31 games later, official NFL research in 2019 concluded the NFL had around 13 million UK-based fans, 4 million of those describing themselves as ‘avid’.

There is estimated to be over 28,000 players of the game across the nation, at the top of that pile lies the north and south British American Football Association (BAFA) Premiership leagues. Local side Merseyside Nighthawks are a part of this.

The ECHO spoke to BAFA Chief Executive, Pete Ackerley, and the Nighthawks about their views on the current state of the American Football scene in Britain.

When asked about the popularity and interest currently surrounding the UK AF scene, Ackerley passionately elaborated his plan to get the sport professionalised within the UK: “It’s not necessarily important to set up more clubs, more to increase the amount of people playing it.

“Finding funding is challenging, as we’re a bit of a late bloomer as a sport over here.”

BAFA’s Logo

Ackerley and the BAFA believe that flag football (similar to tag rugby) is the key to opening up the British scene, due to its potential to be introduced in the 2028 Olympic Games.

He said: “We want to start getting flag football into the younger years at schools, it’s safe and the equipment costs are much lower as you don’t need any of the safety equipment such as helmets and pads.

“Flag football for the 2028 Olympics will be a major catalyst for the game, and that announcement will be coming this Autumn so we’re very excited.

“Other than that, Super Bowl weekends allow us to grow interest, we get a lot of people showing up to teams the following week to give it a go.”

Gary Plunkett, marketing director for the Nighthawks expressed a similar enthusiasm: “We’re currently an amateur league where we have to pay to play, whilst the likes of Germany, Italy, France and Spain have leagues where players are paid to play.”

Plunkett believes the foundations are already in place to kickstart a semi-pro league: “It’s growing quicker and quicker now that the likes of Sky Sports are involving UK-based pundits in their panels and putting a spotlight on British players.

“This is something that we would like to see at some point, it would encourage better players to join the UK’s teams and allow us to compete with the rest of Europe.”

The Nighthawks have seen previous players travel to the Americas and Europe to play, such as scouser Max Charnley-Collins, who is currently at Canadian semi-pro outfit, Valley Huskers.

Charnley-Collins playing for Valley Huskers

Experiencing the talent pathways available in the states, Charnley-Collins said: “I’d say it’s a lack of awareness and investment from the UK. We also don’t have a ‘high school’ network in any sports other than rugby, which makes it extremely hard for young kids to get into the sport and progress.

“There are however programmes like the Nighthawks that try and get youngsters into the sport from a younger age, that will be the way in which the sport will develop to be bigger and better in the future.”

With such vast rosters and an initially  daunting ruleset to learn, it’s easy for an intrigued sports fan to be put off learning the game.

Quarterback for the Nighthawks, Luke Ryan said: “I think in order to get American Football recognised in the UK people just need to give it a chance. People have a preconception that it is slow and hard to understand but once you get into it, it’s quite the opposite.”

Ikechi Apakama, Line-backer for the Nighthawks believes the sport needs to challenge the nation’s overwhelming interest in football and rugby: “The way to deal with this challenge is to get boys and girls playing the sport from a younger age and to increase the amount of funding available to do this.

“The UK has a sizeable NFL fanbase, the London interest is there, it’s more a case of making young potential players aware of the sport from a suitable early age!”

With the Super Bowl right around the corner, everybody gave their verdicts on the upcoming clash:

Apakama : “As much as I would like to see someone other than the Chiefs dominate, I think Mahomes and the Chiefs offence will be too much for the Eagles. It’ll be a close game but I think the Chiefs will win, likely by a late TD.”

Ryan: “I think multiple scores for both teams is almost guaranteed. Two extremely talented quarterbacks, both with an abundance of offensive weapons in their arsenal. It will be a battle to the end, with the score line being a tight 30-27 to the Eagles.

Charnley-Collins: “My stand out player would be Jordan Mailata from the Eagles. He was a rugby convert and only started playing three years ago. He’s now one of the best in his position and could potentially be a Super Bowl winner.”

Plunkett: “I’m a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and I think they’re in with a very good chance of winning the Super Bowl. I’d love to see them win and lift the trophy again.”

Ackerley: “If Mahomes stays mobile, the Chiefs will win. He is the best quarterback I’ve seen, he can change the game from wherever he is on the field, and he’s got an arm like a howitzer! I’m hoping for a fast, high-scoring game.”

You can watch alongside the Nighthawks at the Longshot sports bar on the Albert Dock, or watch it from the comfort of your own home on ITV1 or Sky Sports, with kick off scheduled for 11.30pm GMT.