Pittsburgh Steelers connect with Gaelic games to grow fan base in Ireland

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A view from outside Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. It's the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association which has teamed up with the Pittsburgh Steelers as the NFL team tries to expand its fan base in Ireland. The Steelers played a preseason game in Croke Park in 1997 and might stage a regular-season game there in the future. (AP Photo/Ken Maguire)

DUBLIN – The Irish economy is getting a boost from the Notre Dame football game in Dublin. The Pittsburgh Steelers are benefitting, too.

The NFL team has front-office representation in Dublin this weekend supporting American football initiatives and gathering intel on the Irish market now that it has marketing rights for Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the NFL’s push to expand its audience internationally.

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The team has joined forces with the powerful Gaelic Athletic Association with an eye toward a regular-season game at Croke Park in the future, though no promises have been made.

Daniel Rooney, the team’s director of business development and strategy, visited an amateur American football game featuring an Irish team during a visit to Donnybrook Stadium on Friday night. He did a coin toss and crowned a kicking champion.

“First and foremost it’s about bringing American football to Ireland, north and south, bringing the game we love to a sports-hungry country that we think it will resonate with,” Rooney told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Irish Wolfhounds game. “Growing the game, growing the Steelers brand with the Irish people is our goal.”

Rooney planned to attend Saturday's game at sold-out Aviva Stadium and said he's been in touch with organizers John Anthony and Padraic O’Kane.

“We’re meeting those in market who are raising up the game of American football,” said Rooney, son of Steelers president Art Rooney II. “John Anthony and his group have done a great job with this college series, so we want to learn from those guys and definitely support them.”

The key to the team's Irish plans, however, is its link with the GAA. The organization manages and promotes Gaelic games including Gaelic football and hurling. As important, though, the GAA is hugely influential in Irish society given its historical significance in Irish independence.

Gaelic games have been voted as the country's favorite popular sport, ahead of soccer and rugby.

The Steelers made their three preseason games available free on the GAA's streaming platform.

“We have a really good relationship with Croke Park and the GAA, so constant communication going on there, and really just admiring how they conduct their sporting organization and learning a lot from them,” Rooney said.

“How to reach the sporting communities is probably the biggest piece,” he added. “We know how the Irish people feel about Croke Park, whether it’s hurling or Gaelic football, so we want to position American football in a similar vein. It’s the right group to be chatting with, for sure.”

The team launched an “Irish Steelers” podcast that recently featured Gaelic footballer Paudie Clifford, who is a Steelers supporter and big fan of Troy Polamalu. A watch party during the season is being planned in Dublin and should feature a Steeler great or two.

At 82,300 capacity, Croke Park is one of the largest stadiums in Europe and it hosted a Steelers preseason game against the Chicago Bears in 1997. Ireland has never hosted a regular-season game.

Another preseason game would be of little interest since starters hardly play and it likely wouldn't get many Pittsburgh fans on a plane — an estimated 32,000 Notre Dame fans came for Saturday's game against Navy.

The NFL grants teams a five-year license in the international markets. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who annually play in London, were also granted rights in Ireland.

“We’ll keep working each year to grow our game and work towards big events like a game. That will be a piece of how we’re trying to grow our sport,” said Rooney, reiterating that no game commitment has been made.

The Irish-American Rooney family has a long history with the country. The late Daniel M. Rooney was U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2009-12.

American football still remains a mystery to many Irish people. The sports pages of newspapers this weekend are filled with the buildup to the Rugby World Cup. The Irish Independent published a story providing guidance to locals about traditions like “tailgating” and body painting.

Not everyone needs tips, though. Killian McGinnis, a 22-year-old Gaelic footballer, attended the Nebraska-Northwestern game last year.

“After that it kind of cemented my interest,” the college student said. “That the NFL is coming to Dublin is massive.”


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