American football fans around the world are gearing up for the landmark Super Bowl 50 with the sport’s biggest prize to be won in front of an audience of hundreds of millions.
In Scotland it will be no different, with countless viewings being held across the country on television at home, organised parties or public events.
For many it is the only time of year they will watch American football, unaware of the fact the sport is growing in number and stature on their very own doorstep.
This year not only marks the 50th Super Bowl but also 20 years since the Scottish Claymores won the World Bowl at Murrayfield, beating Frankfurt Galaxy 32-27 in dramatic fashion with a late referee decision going in the Claymores’ favour to end the game and win the title in front of 38,982 fans.
The Claymores brought a decade of American football to Scotland as part of the World League of American Football (which was later renamed NFL Europe and NFL Europa) before the franchise was taken to the more lucrative market in Germany in 2004.
It did not last long though as the European division of NFL folded. But that’s no bad thing according to Don Edmonston, head coach of Edinburgh Wolves who are currently plying their trade in Division 1 of the British American Football Association (BAFA).
Speaking to STV, he said: “At the time the Claymores had the financial resources and the personnel resources to put a lot of work into developing American football in the schools’ flag programme.
“They introduced hundreds if not thousands of kids to the sport and then when the Claymores and NFL Europe closed that avenue closed down with it.
“Although the seniors football side at the time wasn’t big as it had been pre-Claymores, the growth side of it from the youngsters up was at its strongest as it had ever been due to the work the Claymores and NFL Europe had put into develop it at grass roots.
“In the last ten years there has been a resurgence of football at all levels, with seven senior teams in Scotland and about the same in youth teams, another half a dozen junior football teams and we’ve also got a women’s team as well.”
As Edmonston says, the Wolves are one of seven Scottish participants over three levels in the BAFA along with East Kilbride Pirates; Clyde Valley Blackhawks (Wishaw); West Coast Trojans (Paisley); Dundee Hurricanes; Glasgow Tigers, and Aberdeen Roughnecks.
The Pirates are considered one of the best in Britain and play at the top tier: the Premiership. Clyde Valley, West Coast and Edinburgh play in Division 1 while the other trio play in Division 2.
Aberdeen Roughnecks are the latest team to come out of the Scottish fray but find themselves with ambition aplenty. At the beginning of last season, the team signed a five-figure deal with local oil company RigDeluge, which included sponsorship and changing the team’s colours to red, black and white like a former American football team in the area named Granite City Oilers.
One man who played for the Oilers is Roughnecks coach Graeme Reith. In 1996 he was Jim Criner’s “cable guy”, following the Claymores’ coach up and down the field with cable to make sure he his microphone and headset were connected to his backroom staff.
He told STV: “NFL Europe was a funny thing because it was basically a feeder league for the NFL but it was a very expensive thing and it never paid its own way. The ticket sales were never enough to cover the costing of the league because obviously they were sending 45 guys each to six teams throughout Europe, hence it changed its format before 1995.
“To travel from Aberdeen to Glasgow for a game, I would never have had a problem with that to go and see a professional American football team but it’s hard. You’d have thought they would have easily sustained crowds of 15-20,000 a game but they didn’t and that’s probably what cost them their position in NFL Europe.
“With having the seven teams over three levels of American football, guys are aspiring to play the game, and it is strong in Britain. Obviously the Roughnecks are in our third year and it’s great there is an Aberdeen team again because it has really rekindled things. We’re really building a good team and looking to build a championship-winning team.”
Now with a Super Bowl 50 party at the city’s Campus bar to look forward to, Reid had long predicted the involvement of Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s final – even before the divisional play-offs and conference championships (basically quarter-finals and semi-finals) had been played.
The Panthers have their own Scottish connection with Arbroath-born Graham Gano as their place-kicker. He finished the season by breaking a franchise record with 146 points in 2015.
Ahead of the big match STV Sport had a chat with the 28-year-old before taking part in one of sport’s biggest spectacles.
Gano could have been the latest player in a long production line of Scots cutting it in the big league had NFL Europa gone to plan.
As Graeme Reid points out it was “basically a feeder league”. There would be many players to fall through the cracks and not get picked up by the bigger teams.
After the Claymores franchise moved to Germany for the Hamburg Sea Devils it took just three years for the league to fold despite the last game, World Bowl XV between Hamburg and Frankfurt Galaxy, attracting a near-capacity crowd of 48,125 supporters in the Commerzbank-Arena.
When asked about the impact of the Claymores and future plans for Britain, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said: “NFL Europa, including the Scottish Claymores and their passionate fans, played an important role in growing a fan base for our sport.
“In many cases, NFL Europa introduced people to the game for the first time and ultimately laid the foundation for future endeavors, such as playing NFL regular-season games in the UK.
“We are thrilled with the progress of the International Series to date, including the enthusiasm we have seen not only for the games themselves, but at NFL-themed events throughout the year.
“Our focus for games in the UK moving forward is currently centred on London and the new stadium agreements we have with Twickenham and the new Tottenham Stadium, as well as the renewal of our successful partnership with Wembley, while further afield we continue to explore the opportunities to play in Mexico and Germany.”
One such event to come to Scotland lately is the NFL UK’s Inside the Huddle podcast, which toured Britain and visited Edinburgh on January 14.
The podcast is presented by Sky Sports’ NFL journalist Neil Reynolds and Jeff Reinebold, former coach of the Rhein Fire, who were regular op
ponents of the Claymores. In Edinburgh alone there were 2000 ticket requests for the event at the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian Hotel.
Speaking at the event, Reinbold recalled one of his first memories of coaching against the Scottish side.
He said: “The first game in 1994 when we brought back NFL Europe was here in Edinburgh. We had gone out on the field, done our warm up and I was up in the coach’s booth for the game.
“I asked the usher where the booth was and he had no idea what I was talking about and so I ran around the stadium until I finally found it. I was three minutes late for the kick-off and the head coach was screaming in the headset asking where I had been.
“From that it has grown so much. I was at a Virgin Active gym working out and a kid came over to me. He’s from Edinburgh and playing football at Sheffield and starts talking about different guys playing. It’s just incredible how the knowledge of the fans has grown.
“It’s been cold every time I come to Scotland and we always knew we were in for a dogfight when you played the Claymores. Jim Criner did such a great job and Stevie McCusker who did such great work in grass roots here; there were great players and coaches here.”
With the NFL not focusing on Scotland, it comes down to the British American Football Association to run their three tiers of leagues and continue to help the game progress both sides of the border.
Russ Hewitt is the director of competitions at BAFA which, like many of the clubs it keeps under its remit, is run solely by volunteers. When he is not working with the league, Hewitt works as a self-employed engineer in construction.
The 43-year-old said: “When I first started in the sport I was 14 and there were only four TV channels and it was on Channel 4 every Sunday evening.
“That’s where my interest came from and there were about 200 teams back then, they popped up and dropped away all over the place to the point where the lowest was 30 teams. And now we’re back on the rise again with 76 teams competing next summer.
“Since 2009, there has been a huge growth. It coincided with universities going single institutions – historic, old universities that had two or three going into one team has now been split up and every university has their own team or is working towards that. The league is starting to grow and it’s the largest it has been since 1994.”
Does he agree with those within the league who would argue the loss of the Claymores actually helped the progression of the game in Scotland? And would an NFL franchise in London work despite the previous problems of the league’s European division?
Hewitt replied: “I think the Claymores foundations proved it would work. England Monarchs had more of a struggle but that’s the only issue of an NFL team coming over because they would be London-based. Could people travel every single week to see them play?
“I’ve got friends who were Claymores so I know how much they put in at grassroots and that’s really become the backbone of Scottish football now. Historically the people running those clubs have all had experience with the Claymores; whether it has been grassroots, player development or coaching observation.
“A lot of what the Claymores put in and that groundwork has fed to the people who are now the leaders of these teams, so that has been good to see.”
Reinbold quotes with thanks to Cameron Hobbs. Edmonston/Reid images created by Rebecca Leith for STV.