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GAA president Larry McCarthy has openly stated the Association has ambitions to host a regular season NFL game in Croke Park in the next five years.
It comes as the Pittsburgh Steelers revisited the venue the team played in 1997 to announce the club’s ‘home marketing rights’ on the island of Ireland.
And while the NFL and the Steelers were quick to stress there are no concrete plans to host a game in Ireland any time soon, McCarthy was more ambitious, and confident that Croke Park would be the Steelers’ venue of choice.
“We are hoping in those five years to get a game here. And I said to them privately that it has to be a game in a competition. People have no interest in friendlies any more, they want a game in a competition. It has to have relevance,” McCarthy said.
“A pre-season game … would we take a pre-season game? Yes we would. But an NFL regular-season game is what you are looking for.
“And why not here? We have the best stadium in Europe!
“Think about it from their perspective, they’ll get 82,000 people in here (Croke Park), they’ll get 40 (thousand) … I am not exactly sure how much they will get in the Aviva, 42, 43 thousand whatever the number is. So it makes a lot more economic sense for the Steelers to come here, especially if they can sell it out.
“I think you would sell a game here out. The college game is sold out, the NFL games in London are sold out.”
The connection between the Steelers is clear given that former club chairperson Dan Rooney was United States Ambassador to Ireland under Barack Obama, and when he passed in 2017 the team wore a shamrock emblem on their jerseys emblazoned with Rooney’s initials.
The Steelers also played in Croke Park in 1997 in a pre-season game against the Chicago Bears, the only NFL game to have ever been played in Ireland. And the connections between the Rooney family and Ireland give optimism to those who want to make an NFL game in Croke Park a reality.
“I think it is (attainable). There’s deep roots and connections between Ireland and the Rooney family,” McCarthy added.
“Have they said there is going to be a game here? No, but we hope that there would be one here … and it would be in Croke Park."
However, the perspective from the NFL side is more unclear over when a game may actually take place, should it ever happen. Instead they are focusing on the events and initiatives which are aimed at building a long-term fanbase of the club and sport here in Ireland and making a game a long-term goal with no concrete timeframe.
"We can’t make any predictions,” Daniel Rooney, Steelers Director of Business Development & Strategy and grandson of the former US Ambassador, said.
"Our long-term ambitions are to play a game in Ireland, certainly. But there are a lot of decision-makers around who decide where a game can be played and when a game can be played.
"Our goal is to reach all 32 counties. Working with groups like the GAA we’d like to reach as many as possible.
“What we have done in Mexico is the best way to explain what Ireland can expect. There we have hosted the largest watch party to this point, 2,000-plus fans attended, and hall-of-famers were there. We hosted kicking camps there too, and a kicker we evaluated in Mexico came to rookie mini-camp and trained with us last weekend. Also flag football and other grassroots-type activity.”
What makes things more unclear is the messaging coming from both sides. The GAA have said they have a five-year plan in place with the Steelers, going so far as putting yellow NFL goalposts on the Croke Park pitch to give the announcement some fanfare. Yet Rooney said the Steelers and the GAA have not yet signed an official partnership, and that the Association are a “guiding force for us right now”.
"No official partnership is in place, but we are having great conversations,” Rooney added.
When pressed for concrete details of what the partnership between the Steelers and GAA will mean, McCarthy conceded that the relationship is in its infancy, saying that “this is the start of a dance”.
Adding to the long-term nature of the NFL’s vision for Ireland, Brett Gosper said that “there are long-term plans but nobody wants to be specific about it, there is a lot of blocking and tracking that must take place before we get to that point.”
However, Gosper – former head of World Rugby – did stress that the Steelers’ presence in the Irish market has significantly increased the possibility of Croke Park hosting an NFL game.
“It is in their long-term desire to play a game here. Having a game here in the next five years depends a lot on the Steelers. It was not possible before the Steelers turned up here. It is now in the realms of the possible.”
However, with a limited number of games slotted for Europe, Croke Park may face some competition for coveted NFL regular season games.
“We have conversations all the time with stadia around Europe. We have conversations with the Bernabeu, with the Stade de France, because we need to know a long way out their availability and renovation cycles.
“The NFL hasn’t had conversations with Croke Park about a game here. They have an open dialogue with the Steelers and that’s a long-term possibility.
"But I think the global markets programme will create the desire for teams to bring a game every now and then to a market they are active in, as it will give them a shot in the arm in doing what they are trying to do, so over time I do think there will be more international games.”