Last weekend at Butts Park Arena in Coventry, the best young talent from across the country met in the reborn British University All-Stars game hosted by Football America. The game brought together Britball’s biggest upcoming stars in a battle between North and South in a revival of a game that has been absent for the last decade.
Since the end of the 2008/09 season the concept of an All-Star game has disappeared from the British American Football scene. Late last year the British American Football Association (BAFA) gave Football America clearance to bring the marquee event back. Last Sunday marked the culmination of nearly a years hard work.
195 players from 56 Universities applied to play in the game, with the biggest contributor being Coventry University putting forward 18 athletes. All applicants attended trial days for their region and from this the two star studded teams were put together.
Sports Gazette spoke to the games organiser Joe Walker, Team Relationship Manager at Football America. Joe has been involved in the sport for 16 years through playing, coaching and now his job.
“Since the removal of GB students as a way for University players to progress there has been no place for student players to progress to the next level. Offering All-Stars fills some of that gap!”
Walker is referring to the former Great Britain Students national team which was removed after the 2015/16 British American Football Association (BAFA) season. For years this programme helped players develop and gave them the platform to showcase their skills. The team played all around Europe and from it many of the athletes got the opportunity to play semi proffesional level on the continent.
Walker hopes that the All-Star game will open up more opportunities for British players to play abroad in leagues such as the German Football League (GFL) in front of crowds that reach 15,000.
“These athletes should be aspiring to the best and highest levels available to them, if that is European football then great!”
The return of the all-star game was an undoubted success and Walker admitted that planning has already begun for future instances of the programme: “We are passionate about making the event bigger and better as we move forwards. It has allowed us to give back to a great part of the football community!”
Onside productions live streamed the event and over 10,000 people tuned in on Youtube or Facebook to watch the South All Stars come out on top of the North All Stars 12-8 in a tightly contested affair.
The amateur game needs to capitalise on the exposure created by the NFL and its commitment to the UK, specifically London. Events like last Sunday increase the exposure of the British game to what is potentially a massive fanbase. BAFA must work with initiatives such as this to help grow the game. Walker thinks that the British game is growing from strength to strength but warns that this must be managed.
“We have some very talented people in the country when it comes to our sport and its necessary that those running the sport know how to access and use that talent to the best of its ability.” Opportunities like the All-Star game are another step in a positive direction for the ever-growing sport.
The uniforms for the All-Star game were sponsored by Hail Mary Hits a non-profit organisation that has become a massive supporter of the Britball community. Marc Holden, one of the co-founders described it as an “awesome feeling” having their name on the All-Star jerseys.
Holden and the Hail Mary Hits team very much have their own story to tell. They started out in March 2018 when a group of a few friends set the facebook group up initially just to offer the opportunity to obtain signed NFL memorabilia for NFL fans in the UK.
When one of Holden’s old school friends asked if he knew of any sponsorship opportunities for his own team (Milton Keynes Redwings) the idea came about that Hail Mary Hits would raffle some items to help out. Since then through a membership system they have gained 420 paid members, over 3,800 in their Facebook group and raised over £21,000 for 20 Britball teams by raffling NFL memorabilia to the NFL UK community.
One of the more recent teams to benefit are the current Britbowl runners up the Tamworth Phoenix, but Hail Mary Hits has helped a range of teams across all aspects of the British amateur game.
“It’s grown beyond our wildest expectations” Holden said. “Now we have the platform, we are looking at options in the new year to make Hail Mary Hits bigger and better.”
One thing Walker and Holden are definitely in touch with is the importance of the community in British American Football. For any amateur sport to be successful community has to be at the heart of proceedings.
Holden commented that “Our community is fantastic and it shows by our first ever NFL fan meet up in Birmingham a few weeks ago.”
One member of that community is Ted Watts, President of the Leicester Longhorns one of the teams to benefit from the Hail Mary Hits scheme.
“For us something like this is a massive help. We have to pay for transport to and from games as well as buy kit from our suppliers Football America that meets safety standards.,” Watts said.
“Sometimes a set of pads and helmets costs over £200 so the money provided by Hail Mary Hits will go a long way to help get more students involved with the game which can only be a good thing.
“The more and more people we have playing the game the more it can continue to grow and it won’t be long until we see more Brits making it in the NFL. The fact that NFL fans are winning signed memorabilia they otherwise couldn’t afford is an added bonus,” Watts added.
The team are looking into the option of becoming a fully fledged charity at some point in the near future and 2020 plans on being a big year for them.
“We are also looking to take our fan meet ups across the country and bring this ever growing community closer to each other.” Holden said. “Many friendships have been made along the way.”
They may have two very different stories to tell, but a lot can be be learnt from the work of both Football America and Hail Mary Hits in support of the British game.
Last year an NFL International Series record attendance of 85,870 watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium. Ticket sales for this years games have been as good. This is one big community of fans that can make a huge difference to the game at all levels. To be able to grow the amateur game, Britball must find a way to utilise the community fanbase the NFL marketing machine has brought to the UK.
With greater exposure and community based groups such as Hail Mary Hits the game in the UK will only go from strength to strength. The rebirth of the British University All-Star game and a growing fan base are signs that the future of American Football in the UK is in a very healthy place.