Osi Umenyiora’s Global Mission
Since 2015, when he retired from an 11-year NFL career, Osi Umenyiora has been focused on growing the NFL internationally, through a combo career of scouting players in Europe and covering the league as a broadcaster for BBC Sports. Umenyiora was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and moved to the U.S. with his family as teenager. This year, he won a prestigious British television award for his work covering the NFL, and he’s worked with the league to create the recently announced International Player Pathway, which allows four NFL teams to carry an extra practice squad spot that is allocated to an international player. While on vacation just outside of Paris, Umenyiora spoke to The MMQB about the NFL’s London future, rugby crossover stars, and the significance of the practice squad international players.
KAHLER: The Ravens’ fifth-round pick, Jermaine Eluemunor, is British, and he first got interested in the NFL when he was flipping through the channels as a kid in a northwest London suburb and found the broadcast of the NFL’s first game played in London, which you played in with the Giants. You spent your early childhood in London before any games were ever played there. What do you think Eluemunor’s story means for the growth of the NFL in the U.K.?
UMENYIORA: That was really incredible. I remember reading about that and thinking to myself, That’s an amazing thing, for somebody across the pond to watch a game on TV and get that much interest in it and turn into an NFL player. That’s rare, but it shows that it’s possible and it shows that the game is growing exponentially, and it is going to continue to grow. I’ve never met him but I am going to be watching him for sure.
KAHLER: Can you imagine if you had been able to go watch an NFL game or find it on local TV as a kid in London? What impact would that have had on you?
UMENYIORA: Yeah, that would have been amazing. I think the NFL is a sport that when you see it, especially if you see a pretty good game, you are immediately attracted to it and attracted to the way the game is played and the incredible athletes you see out there. You see it and it piques your interest immediately. I think if I would have seen it back then, I would have been interested in at least seeing if I could play it. For some people, it is just in your makeup and the minute you see it you want to know what is going on and you want to go out there and play. Back then we didn’t have that opportunity, but obviously now a lot of people do.
KAHLER: Mark Waller, the NFL’s VP of international development, recently told Peter King that he thinks a franchise will relocate to London sometime after the next CBA. What’s your best guess for when—or if—a team will move to London?
UMENYIORA: Honestly, I would have to defer to Mark on that subject. I think he's more in tune with what the owners are thinking. From what I have seen working in the UK, they are definitely ready for it. They are ready now. They have a tremendous fan base and tremendous support and the team that does come out there is not going to be just London’s team, it is going to be Europe’s team, because traveling through Europe is like traveling through the United States. You can get from one country to another in an hour or hour and thirty minutes. Everything is so close over here, so I think the team that does come over here is going to be Europe’s team. I will assume that with the trajectory we are currently on, sooner rather than later we are going to see a franchise in London.
KAHLER: What will be the biggest challenge for a team that moves to London?
UMENYIORA: Probably adjusting to the time difference and the fact that you are not going to be in America. These guys are all professionals, they are all athletes, and they are going to love London. The Brits are very similar to Americans in culture and spirit and a lot of things. They are going to come over here and adjust rather quickly. They might not see their families as much and maybe people won’t be pressuring them as much as they do in America, which might be a good thing for them. It’s not going to be as difficult as people think it is going to be for people to come over here once they see how London is and they see how England is in general, I think they will adjust rather quickly.
KAHLER: A lot of naysayers claim that the logistics of a putting a team in London are the biggest issue. A team would likely need to have two centers of gravity, one in London and one in the United States in order to work around issues like needing to work out a player at the last minute. Do you think that’s the best solution and do you think logistics will be difficult?
UMENYIORA: I think it would work for that aspect. I think if somebody was to get hurt and you wanted to work out another player, rather than flying him to England, I think it will make sense for that. But other than that, I don’t think it would be quite that difficult. I think teams travel from NYC to California all the time, and that is definitely the same distance as going from the east coast of the United States to London, it’s not that far off. So I think in that respect it is not going to be quite as difficult as everybody would like to make it seem. The way I look at it is, they put a man on the moon, is what I like to say—nearly 50 years ago they put a man on the moon, so if they really want to bring a franchise to London, they will figure all the logistics out rather simply.
KAHLER: Mark Waller also told Peter King that the new Tottenham Stadium will have the capability to host a Premier league game and an NFL game—a doubleheader—on the same day. Can you imagine what that would be like?
UMENYIORA: That would be something I would be incredibly interested in, because I am a huge soccer fan. To go to a stadium and watch a soccer game, and Tottenham is one of the best in the Premier League, to watch that and then sit there and wait around for a little bit and go back in and watch an NFL game, that would be incredible. I think it is something that a lot of people would be interested in doing. Tottenham is a huge club and they are building their stadium to host NFL games also, so I don’t think they would be doing that if there wasn’t a long-term push by the NFL to be in London soon.
KAHLER: Do you think that the appetite for eight homes games, year after year, is sustainable in London? Or will the novelty wear off?
UMENYIORA: I think the appetite is there; I was there when they played in the first game in 2007. I played in that game and it was sold out and all the games have been sold out since then. The appetite hasn’t waned. They keep increasing the number of games year after year. There were four games this year and all of them sold out. So I don’t see the popularity of the game waning. I think maybe if you put a team out here that is terrible, year in and year out, maybe the novelty might wear off then. But you are still going to have fans who want to see other teams who are coming to London to play. So I don’t think that is going to be an issue, not in the short term.
KAHLER: You played a role in scouting Moritz Boehringer, a German who became the first international player drafted into the NFL without having played college football. Boehringer was drafted last year in the sixth round by the Vikings and spent the season on their practice squad. Is Boehringer the biggest success story for you since you began working to grow the game internationally, or is there something else you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
UMENYIORA: What am I most proud of? I think that [Boehringer] was really big, but I think getting the practice squad allocation for international players, [the new International Player Pathway program] which we have in place now, I think that has definitely been something that I am especially proud of, because what you have is international players, people from all around the world, are going to be able to have a chance to make it into the NFL. There are some outstanding athletes and they are playing football everywhere. There are four teams now, picked at random and they can carry 11 practice squad players, and these teams are in the NFC South this year, they have an extra player that doesn’t count against the practice squad allocated to them. We have four players now that just got signed. So now what is going to happen is all these people from around the world have the opportunity to play in the NFL and that just got done maybe two weeks ago, so it’s new. That’s definitely been the biggest thing that I have accomplished since I have been here. A lot of guys who have never played before, but are incredible athletes, can actually take the time to learn the game and assimilate in the culture and get into the NFL that way. With that, what we’ve done is change people’s minds. People who never thought they would have a chance to make it to the NFL are now going to get that chance. We’re giving them an opportunity to do that. I think that has been my proudest moment so far.
KAHLER: Have you even considered recruiting a big rugby star to switch over to the NFL? Seems like that would be a great way to grow the game internationally. Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne almost succeeded in doing that, but he wasn’t able to stick with the 49ers.
UMENYIORA: Yeah, we have one already. He signed with the Falcons, his name is Alex Gray. He was a captain for the U21 England rugby team. He converted from rugby and he is on the Falcons’ practice squad, as the allocated international player. We haven’t made a lot of noise about it yet, but we are going to let that be known and we are going to be able to get more and more of these incredible athletes, crossover athletes from all over the world who are going to give the NFL a try. Hopefully we are going to be able to get more and more of these.
KAHLER: Is there anything else you are working on to grow the game?
UMENYIORA: I won an award for the BBC show that we do out here recently. I’m just trying to expand my broadcasting horizon, and moving into different areas out here in England. I’m really happy to be out here.
KAHLER: Peter King was recently on a speaking tour in the U.K. and he was very impressed with the knowledge of the U.K. fan base. What have you seen from them?
UMENYIORA: I don’t think all of them are quite as advanced as the fans in the United States, but they are learning and they are leaning at a very rapid pace. Some of these questions that you get asked and the knowledge that a lot of these fans have is, quite frankly, incredible. When you are in America, it is hard to fathom that outside of America there is a fan base for American football like there is out here—not only in England but everywhere in the world. I get videos and things from Nigeria and Ghana and Israel and Ivory Coast, from everywhere. People are tuning in, they are watching the games, they love football. I don’t blame them, it’s a fantastic sport and it keeps growing globally.
KAHLER: You were high school and college teammates with DeMarcus Ware. Do you guys still keep in touch? What will he do in retirement?
UMENYIORA: Yeah, I talk to DeMarcus all the time. I just talked to him yesterday. He’s doing really well. Whatever he decides to do next, he is going to be great at it. I want him to move into broadcasting because he has a great personality and he’s definitely a Hall of Fame player, so that will be the next step. I’m trying to recruit him to come to England. This is the next frontier. America is just so saturated I couldn’t see myself doing what all these guys who retired do in America, they just retire and it’s the whole car wash. I just couldn’t see myself doing that, so coming out here was a breath of fresh air for me and I am loving it.
KAHLER: Do you feel like you are able to own your space as an NFL broadcaster in the U.K. in a way that you wouldn’t have if you stayed in the U.S.?
UMENYIORA: No question about it. It’s been truly incredible. I didn’t want to do the regular, what everybody else was doing, and if I would have gone into broadcasting in America, that’s what I would have done. Mark Waller brought me out here, I am eternally grateful to him for taking that chance. He had no idea what we were going to do, he was just like, let’s just go. So I came out here and started working and started finding different things to do and it’s just been incredible so far.
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