The NFL’s playbook for Africa

Born to Nigerian parents, Osi Umenyiora, a former defensive end for the New York Giants and two-time Super Bowl champion, is now at the forefront of the National Football League’s (NFL) drive to expand its presence in Africa. In a recent interview (watch above) with Ibrahim Sagna, chairman of the investment firm Silverbacks Holdings, Umenyiora delved into the NFL’s strategy for the continent.

From player to growing the NFL internationally

While Umenyiora was still playing for the Giants, the team squared off against the Miami Dolphins in London in 2007 as part of the NFL’s efforts to promote the league in Europe. Inspired by this, Umenyiora decided that upon his retirement, he’d move to London to help grow the NFL’s global reach. He communicated this to the NFL’s international unit at the time. After his retirement in 2014, he approached the NFL, reminding them of his ambition from seven years prior. He soon found himself working in a London office. “I was there from nine to five working and just trying to come up with concepts and things to do to grow the game internationally.”

Most of Umenyiora’s initial efforts were directed towards developed countries such as the UK and Germany. Africa wasn’t on the NFL’s radar then, largely due to perceived limited financial prospects. However, Umenyiora recognised that many of the attributes he sought in other regions were already abundant in Africa: a plethora of potential NFL players, a youthful population, and encouraging macroeconomic indicators. “There’s two types of growth – there’s linear growth and there’s exponential growth. And you could get linear growth in all these markets (Europe) … but for me, the exponential growth could only come from Africa, because it had all the ingredients and everything necessary for the game to grow.” He further notes, “if you plant your seed in Africa now, 10, 15 years from now, it’s going to explode for you.”

Umenyiora began exploring the idea of the NFL making inroads into Africa. Benefiting from a strong relationship with the NFL commissioner, he took his vision straight to him. “I was like, ‘Listen, you know, I’ve been here for a couple of years now, I’ve seen everything that people are trying to do. There’s a massive opportunity here in Africa. You just have to trust me, you have to let me figure out exactly what we need to do.’ And he was like, ‘Okay Osi, go for it.’ And that was how the idea for NFL Africa began.”

The NFL’s game plan in Africa

One way the NFL is looking to boost the game’s popularity in Africa is by recruiting more players from the continent to play in the league. Umenyiora believes that seeing African players succeeding in the NFL “is a massive selling point in terms of consumption and getting people to actually understand and want to follow this game”.

Currently, the NFL roster includes over 125 players of African descent, either born in Africa or as first-generation Americans, representing 15 African countries. Umenyiora’s ‘The Uprise’ initiative has launched scouting camps in Africa to spot budding talent and guide them toward potential NFL careers. “The demand for these type of athletes in the United States of America is insatiable … And then the supply of these type of athletes in Africa is unlimited. So basically, all it is, is just the connection of supply to demand. It’s basic economics,” he asserts.

Umenyiora has also spearheaded the Uprise flag football league in Nigeria. Flag football, a non-tackle variant of American football where players “tackle” by removing a flag from an opponent, is seen as a more accessible introduction to the sport due to its reduced equipment and infrastructure requirements. Notable NFL players have been encouraged to invest in Nigeria’s flag football teams: David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns owns The Chiefs; Emmanuel Ogbah of the Miami Dolphins owns the Naija Lions; Romeo Okwara of the Detroit Lions has the Tigers; and Maurice Jones-Drew, a former Jacksonville Jaguars player, owns the Yellow Trumpets. To incentivise participation, there’s also a prize purse for the champion team.

The goal of the flag football league is to identify talented players and to drive awareness and consumption of the main game. “If you’re playing flag football, ultimately, you’re going to be watching the professionals of the NFL,” Umenyiora states.

Watch the full interview at the top of this article.