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With Increased Global Influence, Where Are the Next Big NFL Pipelines?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 14, 2016

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Moritz Boehringer, of Germany, pulls in a pass during the NFL football team's rookie minicamp Friday, May 6, 2016, in Eden Prairie, Minn. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings' Moritz Böhringer, a German native, and the New York Giants' Anthony Dable, who comes from France, aren't like their teammates or any of the other players who reported to training camp. These international prospects continue to pursue dreams of playing professionally while carrying the weight of nations and thousands around the world interested in following in their footsteps. 

Europe is merely one area where the NFL's influence continues to grow. From Asia to South America to even Africa, these relatively untapped markets stand as the next great frontiers to develop into pipelines for the American game. 

With the world gathering in Rio de Janeiro to watch the 2016 Olympics, American football is out of the spotlight yet is more popular than ever. Football is no longer just an American phenomenon. As safety and a lack of participation at the youth levels dominate the national conversation, interest increases abroad at an accelerated pace.

However, the sport still has a long way to go before it is a global entity. 

Foreign-born players currently found in NFL
AlbaniaKristjan Sokoli (Seahawks)
America SamoaMike Iupati (Cardinals), Domata Peko (Bengals), Ropati Pitoitua (Titans), Rey Maualuga (Bengals), Joey Iosefa (Patriots), Nila Kasitati (Redskins), Lene Maiava (Seahawks), Paul Soliai (Panthers), Vi Teofilo (Chargers), Destiny Vaeao (Eagles)
AustraliaJordan Berry (Steelers), Brad Wing (Giants), David Yankey (Panthers), Adam Gotsis (Broncos), Lac Edwards (Jets), Blake Muir (49ers)
BahamasAlex Cooper (Bengals)
BelizeRakeem Nunez-Roches (Chiefs)
BrazilCairo Santos (Chiefs)
CameroonArie Kouandjio (Redskins), Cyrus Kouandjio (Bills), Stephane Nembot (Ravens)
CanadaAustin Pasztor (Browns), Brett Boyko (Chargers), Stefan Charles (Lions), Christian Covington (Texans), Tyrone Crawford (Cowboys), Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (Chiefs), David Foucault (Panthers), L.P. LaDouceur (Cowboys), Jon Ryan (Seahawks), Brent Urban (Ravens), John Urschel (Ravens), Luke Willson (Seahawks), Elie Bouka (Cardinals), T.J. Jones (Lions), Medi Abdesmad (Titans), Brett Jones (Giants), Cleyon Lang (Dolphins), Rashaun Simonise (Bengals), Tevaun Smith (Colts)
CongoAndy Mulumba (Chiefs)
Dominican RepublicJosue Matias (Titans)
EnglandJack Crawford (Cowboys), Jay Ajayi (Dolphins), Josh Mauro (Cardinals), Menelik Watson (Raiders), Lawrence Okoye (Cowboys), Chigbo Anunoby (Browns)
EstoniaMargus Hunt (Bengals)
FranceAnthony Dable (Giants)
GermanyMoritz Böhringer (Vikings), Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Markus Kuhn (Patriots), Kasim Edebali (Saints), Jerome Felton (Bills), Ladarius Green (Steelers), R.J. Harris (Saints), Jeff Locke (Vikings), Mark Nzeocha (Cowboys), Tyrus Thompson (Saints), Bjoern Werner (Jaguars), Mike Jenkins (Buccaneers), Jamaal Jones (Chargers), Andrew Williamson (Colts)
GhanaZiggy Ansah (Lions)
HaitiPierre Desir (Browns), Vlad Ducasse (Ravens), Gosder Cherilus (Buccaneers), Karl Joseph (Raiders), Dadi Nicolas (Chiefs)
ItalyGiorgio Tavecchio (Raiders), Mykkele Thompson (Giants)
JamaicaPatrick Chung (Patriots), Kenrick Ellis (Vikings), Orlando Franklin (Chargers), Laken Tomlinson (Lions), Danielle Hunter (Vikings)
JapanRobert Griffin III (Browns)
KenyaRees Odhiambo (Seahawks), Helva Matungulu (Jets)
LiberiaTamba Hali (Chiefs), Jonathan Massaquoi (Chiefs), Sio Moore (Colts)
New ZealandStephen Paea (Redskins), Paul Lasike (Bears)
NigeriaEmmanuel Ogbah (Browns), Caleb Benenoch (Buccaneers), David Onyemata (Saints), Jerry Attaochu (Chargers), Nelson Agholor (Eagles), Obum Gwachum (Saints), Efe Obada (Falcons)
PolandSebastian Janikowski (Raiders)
ScotlandGraham Gano (Panthers)
South KoreaKyle Love (Panthers)
TongaStar Lotulelei (Panthers)
TurkeyChris Conley (Chiefs)
Virgin IslandsLinval Joseph (Vikings)
ZimbabweStansly Maponga (Giants)
NFL.com

The next step is to build channels and infrastructure to cultivate the interest and accompanying talent from those countries that recently fell in the love with the game. In doing so, American football could eventually compete at a global level. 

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"I think so," former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, who is a native of Nigeria, said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report. "I think it will happen. I really like the direction the NFL is going. People complain about it, but they’re going in the right direction as far as making the game safer.

"The popularity will grow. More countries will play the game. People will be surprised to learn the number of countries actually playing the game today. They are playing it, but they’re playing it on a very small scale. The direction the NFL is going is they’re slowly expanding. Once they reach these countries, it will be wonderful."

The number of countries represented among the league's 32 teams reflects the sport's growth. Individuals born in 29 different nations play in the NFL. Six different foreign nations were represented at this year's NFL draft.

With expanded interest, the game can continue to grow like the NBA once did in the 1990s. The NFL doesn't have the luxury of the 1992 Dream Team, though. The closest thing it can do is highlight its athletes who are competing in other Olympic sports. 

Nate Ebner, Jahvid Best and Devon Allen are competing in Brazil. These current, former or future NFL players can't show off their skills on the gridiron. Instead, they'll compete in rugby, the 100-meter dash and 110-meter hurdles, respectively.

These aren't the only NFL athletes to compete in the Olympics since the league's birth, but the spotlight has never been brighter. The Summer Games can stoke interest in American football if marketed correctly. But it's only one opportunity—one that will not have lasting appeal. 

Where the league will truly succeed is by developing international talent already on the roster and building a sustainable overseas network. 

"[European clubs] are starting to build their junior ranks with kids who have been in the program," John McKeon, the creative director of American Football International, said. "They're developing into more complete football players. I don’t know where the tipping point will be for these programs in Austria, Germany and France being able to compete with American players, but they’re definitely getting more of a head start for the college pipeline.

"There are more and more players coming out of these junior pipelines. They’re coming out of these ranks, because guys are putting in the work to build these programs in Europe for years. They grew up in these systems. They know football. They love football. They’re built for it. You’ll see more of them coming into the American game."

NFL Europe (or Europa) built initial inroads, but those only went so far. Its demise created distrust between the NFL and local clubs. 

NFL Europa game featuring the Rhein Fire vs. Hamburg Sea Devils.
NFL Europa game featuring the Rhein Fire vs. Hamburg Sea Devils.KAI-UWE KNOTH/Associated Press/Associated Press

"The German teams and other teams around Europe are a little gun-shy to do anything with the NFL," McKeon said. "NFL Europe had very little local involvement. The entire infrastructure wasn’t as friendly as Europeans would have liked. They now have full control of their leagues. They want to keep it that way. It’s an opportunity to do it a better way themselves. That's the impression the failure left."

Despite these concerns, the NFL successfully marketed its product with the International Series. Since games started in London, only one contest featured a crowd of fewer than 80,000 fans. The league expanded its presence with three games played in London at the start of the 2014 campaign. 

"[NFL Europe] created a base for the growth of the game, particularly Germany and Great Britain," McKeon's partner, Roger Kelly, said. "The growth of the game in those areas since 2007 has been steep. In the last three years with the airing of three regular-season games in England, it triggered even more growth. Everything is starting to come back, because of the previously established base."

Expanding said base is the next goal. As expansion attempts continue, five key areas display the most potential to become talent pipelines. 

        

Europe

New York Giants wide receiver Anthony Dable
New York Giants wide receiver Anthony DableMel Evans/Associated Press/Associated Press

A year ago, the IFAF (International Federation of American Football) World Championship ensued at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Only a smattering of fans showed up to watch American football's version of the World Cup, but no one could deny the players' passion.

The United States won the competition with a 59-12 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game. No opponent came within three touchdowns of the home favorites, yet a certain French phenom stole the show. 

Dable became the proverbial man among boys. The 6'4", 220-pound target not only proved to be a difficult matchup in France's passing game, but he also thrilled with multiple touchdown returns. 

His countrymen are closely watching the Frenchman's NFL journey. 

"There is a huge groundswell of support," McKeon said. "They’re watching every move he makes and watching him on social media. There is 100 percent support."

If a superstar developed after playing only among international federations, it would provide a gigantic boost in morale and overall interest. This has yet to happen.

The biggest international stars, from former greats such as Okoye to current performers such as the New England Patriots' Sebastian Vollmer, all played college football before experiencing NFL success. 

The tide started to shift during this year's draft when Böhringer became the first international player without college experience to be selected. 

Last year, the German wide receiver played for the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns under head coach Ziggy Gehrke. The German Football League has yet to feel the impact of Böhringer's selection, but overall interest in the sport continues to skyrocket. 

"Definitely yes," Gehrke said in an interview via email. "Last fall, the NFL could be regularly seen on free German TV for the first time, and the ratings exceeded all expectations. Having a story like Moritz's in the offseason should help to keep interest high until the start of next season."

If Böhringer establishes himself as a legitimate professional, his potential impact can't be overstated. His presence will likely create a ripple effect throughout Europe. 

"I think it's very important that the European players see that it's possible to make it from the amateur leagues in Europe directly to the NFL," Gehrke said. "There are a number of European players who started playing over here and then took a successful route through college, but nobody had ever been drafted straight out of Europe. Until 2007, NFL Europe was a viable option for ambitious Europeans. When it shut down, the path to professional football seemed to be closed. But now there is new hope for talented football players from Europe."

Germany's affinity for American football is well known thanks to its affiliation with NFL Europe, but another European country also hosts high-caliber football. According to McKeon and Kelly, the top four or five German teams and the top two or three teams in Austria represent Europe's best. 

What's interesting about Austria's inclusion is the country hasn't produced an NFL talent since the 1970s and '80s when kickers Ray Wersching and Toni Fritsch played. 

"My theory is NFL Europe had so many teams in Germany that they started to scout the area for international players," Kelly said. "Of course, the majority of them were in Germany, so they were able to identify the local young players. Those guys focused on Germany, whereas Austria is a little behind in their development. They didn’t get NFL scouts to the area at the time. But they’ve come along very quickly since the demise of NFL Europe. They’re just not as identified at this point."

One particular Austrian team could see an uptick in interest after former Boise State Broncos and Colorado Buffaloes head coach Dan Hawkins accepted a position with the Vienna Vikings—a dominant club that won five Eurobowl championships since 2004. 

Former Boise State Broncos and Colorado Buffaloes head coach Dan Hawkins
Former Boise State Broncos and Colorado Buffaloes head coach Dan HawkinsSue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

This isn't Hawkins' first foray into international play. He served as the United States national team's head coach during the IFAF World Championship. 

When an opportunity arose for Hawkins to coach with one of Europe's best teams alongside a former protege—Vikings head coach Chris Calaycayhe couldn't resist. 

"The international game is hugemuch bigger and better than most think," Hawkins said. "Coaching abroad gives you a real perspective about being a great teacher and developing guys from the ground up. They are eager to learn and play, and their knowledge is pretty good.  

"Leagues are popping up all over the globeit's big in Japan and growing in China. There is a pro league in India, too. Many countries play it on many levels. It’s like soccer with U19, U17, etc., and most clubs even have a women's team."

The level of participation is impressive. According to Hawkins, Vienna's program—which features eight different levels of play—has more than 700 participants.

The actual level of play when compared to the United States varies, though. 

"There is a variety," Hawkins said. "Most of the better clubs over here would probably fall between Division II and Division III. Many have guys who could play Division Icertainly many are looking for opportunities to play in the States, and the younger guys want to be exchange students to play in American high schools." 

Football in Europe continues to trend in the right direction. The ability to produce legitimate talent on a consistent basis may still be a few years away, but interest is at an all-time high. For example, Gehrke mentioned more Germans are playing American football than hockey and estimated more than 50,000 individuals currently participate. 

Of course, soccer will always have its place in the national spotlight, but those who prefer the gridiron are becoming more numerous. 

Europe is the starting point for international growth due to an NFL-appointed head start. However, American football is gaining popularity in other regions, too. 

      

Mexico

Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press/Associated Press

Moving south of the border is a natural extension—one the NFL is ready to exploit with its return to the market after 11 years. 

When the Houston Texans face the Oakland Raiders at a sold-out Estadio Azteca on Nov. 21, it will be the first time two NFL teams meet on Mexican soil since the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 in front of 103,467 onlookers. 

The game is more than a curiosity.

"Mexico held the university world championship earlier this year," Kelly said. "It was a Division III all-star team that went for the United States. Professional and college ball is really coming along there."

Mexico defeated the United States 35-7 to capture back-to-back championships in 2014 and '16. This shows Mexico's level of play is better than one would suspectmuch like another familiar territory. 

     

Asia

Japan competing against the United States in the 2007 IFAF World Championship.
Japan competing against the United States in the 2007 IFAF World Championship.Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Two different ends of the spectrum exist within the Asian market. 

The first is Japan, where American football is relatively advanced even in a country that is not associated with the sport. 

"In Japan, its college league is very good," Kelly said. "They're starting a semi-pro/professional league. They're starting to import Americans for corporate teams. Those teams are very good."

Right now, the NFL doesn't have an equivalent to Ichiro Suzuki for young Asian fans to watch and emulate, but that doesn't mean one won't eventually develop. 

The other is China, where the NFL would love to create a footprint due to its immense population and accompanying financial windfall.  

"Once something catches on in China, it'll become big," Kelly said. "Football is starting to catch on. Just having their population will make a big difference. They just had their first arena league draft as well, and that starts this fall. Things are happening there."

Between 1989 and 2005, the NFL played 13 games in Japan during the American Bowl series. Also, the New England Patriots were scheduled to play the Seattle Seahawks in the 2007 China Bowl, but those plans fell through with the contest never being played. 

American football has established a base in Asia; it simply hasn't been fully realized. We can say the same for a particular South American nation. 

      

Brazil 

Brazilian kicker Cairo Santos originally played American football as an foreign-exchange student at St. Joseph's Academy in St. Augustine, Florida.
Brazilian kicker Cairo Santos originally played American football as an foreign-exchange student at St. Joseph's Academy in St. Augustine, Florida.Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Due to the NFL's exploding popularity there, one country immediately came to the forefront in talks with multiple sources. 

"A country I spend a lot of time working with is Brazil," McKeon said. "The NFL just started being shown on television five years ago. The popularity of the leagues is immense. Ten years ago, American football didn't exist in Brazil. There are now dozens of teams with thousands of players. There are guys out there playing on dirt fields. The sheer numbers of viewers, fans and the amount of new clubs and teams is really staggering.

"Brazil isn't likely to be pumping out talent in the near future, but it has a sports-mad culture. It really doesn’t have anything else besides soccer. For those who like to hit people, they’re all playing football."

The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics has unwittingly built an infrastructure for the growth of American football, as Felipe Pereira, who works with Brazilian football team Corinthians Steamrollers, noted: 

Felipe Pereira @lipe717

Did you know! 4 out of 12 stadiums used during World Cup in Brazil have seen gridiron action? @nfl @espn @NFLBrasil https://t.co/hQeegpUSkY

Brazil's development hasn't progressed beyond the infancy stages, but its potential to become an American football hotbed is astounding. 

Across the Atlantic, another land of opportunity exists in Africa.

        

Nigeria

Running back Christian Okoye emigrated from Nigeria to the United States and played football for Azusa Pacific University before leading the NFL in rushing during the 1989 as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Running back Christian Okoye emigrated from Nigeria to the United States and played football for Azusa Pacific University before leading the NFL in rushing during the 1989 as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Okoye sees vast potential in his home country and native continent. It's there for the taking. The league's leading rusher in 1989 already blazed a trail for young men to follow, which sets Nigeria apart from other countries. 

NFL franchises chose three native-born Nigerians—UCLA's Caleb Benenoch, Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah and Manitoba's David Onyemata—in this year's draft. Okoye continues his legacy through his foundation and an upcoming book, but he retired 24 years ago. 

The potential success of fellow Nigerians will continue what the great running back started by serving as the next generation of stars.

"It's very, very important," Okoye said. "I’ve spoken to the NFL, and they’re interested in doing something. They are doing something. It might not be as quickly as any of us would like, but they’re looking into getting something started."

Ultimately, this new wave of players faces a glass ceiling in regard to giving back to the home country. 

"Only the NFL can do something by putting those infrastructures in place, particularly in Africa," Okoye said. "Once that is done, you’ll see a major influx of players. They're very hungry. There are so many people and kids all looking to do stuff. Soccer is the only popular sport in Nigeria, so everyone plays soccer. Once football is introduced, it will be popular."

     

Obstacles Before Progress

What makes soccer and basketball so enticing is their simplicity. Only a handful of players with a ball and a net or hoop are needed to play. Football is different, which makes it prohibitive for certain nations. 

"Football is a fairly expensive sport because of all the equipment you need," Gehrke said. "It also requires many more players than most other sports to field a team. Once a team has survived the first five or six years, it's usually established in its location."

Facilities and building programs aren't the only concerns. A team's support staff often becomes an overlooked part of football at any level in any country. Assembling legitimate support staffs outside of the United States can be daunting. 

"The infrastructure needs to be in place," Okoye said. "This is why I haven't done anything in Nigeria. It’s too big for one person to start in a proper way. It needs to be started in a proper way to last. 

"To do so, you need to have the proper medical support in place, because injuries occur. You need people around the team who can treat those injuries and doctors who know how to treat them.

"Once we have all of those things, we'll start having more success with pipelines into Nigeria and other countries."

Plus, interest has to remain high. Watching the NFL on television is different than going out and competing. More exposure and understanding of the game is needed to entice others to join. 

"Another hurdle is the lack of media interest," Gehrke said. "Europe is so dominated by soccer that most other sports get very little coverage. In order to change that, football will have to become more professional. Right now, very few players in Germany get paid for playing. The vast majority actually pay membership fees to their clubs to even be able to play."

The media's lack of interest will change if Böhringer and Dable succeed. They're personified versions of potential inroads into talented football-playing countries. 

It then falls on the NFL to capitalize on an ever-expanding viewpoint.

"These programs are doing it without any NFL or collegiate support," McKeon said. "They’re not receiving the same big money as football does in the U.S. They’re doing it because they love football. They grind. It’s a thing to see.

"It's a bit of a Wild, Wild West mentality, but one can’t be naive enough to think American talent is the only talent in the world athletically."

Big, fast and talented athletes exist almost everywherewhether it's Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Japan, Nigeria or any other nation. The responsibility falls on the NFL to become comfortable with the idea that countries outside of the United States can produce legitimate prospects.

The sport shouldn't count on just one country to consistently produce talent; it’s about building the proper international infrastructure to mine the best possible talent at every level.  

Nor should Böhringer and Dable be viewed as a global experiment and overall litmus test; they're merely the tip of the spear and a great starting point for NFL expansion both on and off the field. 

       

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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