NFL: Africa is 'really powerful' talent pool, but no game planned

ACCRA, GHANA -- According to NFL International COO Damani Leech, the NFL is not planning on playing a regular season game in Africa in the near future, but are instead focusing on making the game available to the continent's fans.

Leech was speaking to ESPN at the NFL's first camp in Africa, hosted by the Right to Dream soccer academy in Ghana this week, and said that football needed to be widespread as a sport that people watch on TV, in order to build the fanbase for a live game.

Leech said: "We have no plans for a regular season game in Africa. I think there's a lot of opportunity for us to do a lot with social and digital media, making sure that game content is widely available for people to view.

"We will continue to try to grow and develop the game here in this market -- and then trying to develop a connection with fans with on-ground events."

Leech is in Ghana along with Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, who is driving the talent development on the continent through his programmes, and they identified 40 players from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya to attend.

Helping out at the camp are NFL stars like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Houston Texans), Uchenna Nwosu (Seattle Seahawks), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Cleveland Browns) and Kwity Paye (Indianapolis Colts), as well as former players Roman Oben and Mathias Kiwanuka.

The aim, Leech said, was to get talented players into the International Player Pathway and to the NFL Academy in London: "Our focus, and what we can control, is identifying and developing talent that can make it into the NFL, or younger talent that can go into our NFL Academy programme and system that's based in London.

"Our expectation and hope is that by us creating this pathway to the NFL, that will inspire communities, governments and countries to invest in the sport and create a structure and a system of football in various countries."

Expanding further on the NFL's plans for the camp's top prospects, Umenyiora added to ESPN: "IPP and then the NFL Academy -- which is the guys who are under 19 years old -- they go to the academy. The ones who are like 20, 21, 22 -- they can go to the Combine in London and then to the International Player Pathway.

"We'll sit down. All the guys who came will have a discussion. It's going to be tough. Some guys will make it, some won't, but I think we'll find the right ones."

While US leagues like the NBA have been in Africa for over a decade, this in the NFL's first foray into what could be a valuable region for the business.

Leech explained why they finally made the move: "It's really driven by two things: there's over 100 players in the NFL from Africa -- born in Africa [or] whose parents are first generation American -- so there's a tremendous talent pool on the continent that we as a league have not actively [pursued].

"The second is what's happening broadly in Africa in terms of population growth projections, urbanisation projections, availability of urban technology and broadband wi-fi. All of those things make Africa a [region] that in the next 25-30 years, we think, is going to be really powerful.

"We want to position the league to be successful in Africa."

As for why the NFL chose Ghana as their first country to invest in, as opposed to Nigeria [which has a whopping 92 players in the NFL itself], Leech explained that it came down to immediate logistics.

He said: "We looked at several markets, really -- Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt -- [all of them] check a lot of those boxes. We really view Ghana as just the start.

"This was a place where we had some familiarity. We felt like this would be a good place to start. Certainly other markets -- Nigeria, South Africa -- we want to get to in the very near future.

"We would love to do what we're doing here this week. We would love to replicate that in the future in other countries -- and certainly, Nigeria is a country that we'd like to get to very quickly."