The NFL’s Future in Europe

Friday July 24th, 2015

A few weeks ago, an Amerikansk football team in Sweden booked 20 plane tickets to London and 20 seats at Wembley Stadium for Oct. 4—the date of the next NFL game that will be played internationally.

We introduced you to this Swedish team two weeks ago during Europe Week on The MMQB: the Örebro Black Knights, a community-organized American football club based in a small city about two hours west of Stockholm. The Black Knights want nothing more than to grow the game in their city and their country, so they’re taking their sponsors on a three-day trip to the NFL’s primary international port, London.

“There’s a genuine interest to have some sort of affiliation with the NFL, and our team wants to find out how best to do that,” says Randy Beverly, Jr., the former UCLA defensive back who coaches the Örebro team. “But I don’t know how the NFL sees these kind of ventures. Now, though, there seems to be an effort yet again to bridge the European market with North America.”

That lingering question—how to build that bridge?—has been wrestled with on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1980s, when the NFL started staging the preseason American Bowls in a dozen cities around the world. Since 2007, the NFL’s international plans have centered on London, but recently the league has also been reaching its tentacles into Germany, Mexico and Brazil, with the idea of playing regular-season games or the Pro Bowl at international sites outside the U.K., too.

The MMQB traveled to Europe this summer to see how, where and why the American game is being played outside North America—and what that means for the NFL’s aspirations to build a global league. Should they? You can certainly make the case that the NFL has enough potential roadblocks to its growth here in the U.S. to worry about. Health and safety concerns, for starters, as well as the run of high-profile off-the-field incidents that have taken some of the sheen off the shield.

But overseas, the NFL sees a business opportunity that raises the ceiling for the league’s growth beyond what can happen in the U.S. (even if the growth in the U.S. soon includes a desperately desired return to Los Angeles). We observed a growing base for the game in Europe that is deeper and more passionate than we expected, to the extent that each country has created its own brand of the sport: disciplined and efficient in Germanyfiery and emotional in Italy and a game of the people in Sweden. Those were just the three stops we made out of the more than two-dozen countries in Europe with American football leagues, comprising about 1,000 teams.

“It’s a little bit like an iceberg,” says 49ers coach Jim Tomsula, who spent nine seasons with NFL Europe, which included his first head coaching gig, for the Rhein Fire in Germany. “We’re looking at the tip here in the States, but there’s a whole bunch under the water over there. There are a lot of things set up in Europe that I don’t think people understand.”

Building the bridge across the Atlantic is a far more prodigious task than simply selling out Wembley Stadium a few afternoons each fall, which the NFL has so far done with ease. There is a giant gap between what the NFL is trying to do, and the grass-roots work to grow the sport abroad, which for clubs like the Black Knights entails cleaning up litter to raise money for equipment or painting football lines on soccer fields.

The bottom line, though, is simple: If brands of American football are developing in other parts of the world, the NFL wants its brand to be the main one.

* * *

During the final years of NFL Europe, Tomsula remembers Mark Waller, now the NFL’s executive vice president of international, delivering a to-the-point message during a presentation in Frankfurt, Germany: The biggest growth for the NFL in the future will have to happen outside the United States.

At that point in time, the NFL was about to switch its international strategy, closing the doors on NFL Europe in 2007 and starting the International Series of regular-season games in London. The approaches were polar opposites. The NFL Europe developmental league, originally known as the World League when it opened in 1991, fielded teams in a total of 10 different European cities with rosters of fringe-NFL players, mostly Americans with a mandated number of European players.

NFL Europe was losing money, but the regular-season games in London have been raking it in, easily selling out more than 80,000 premium-priced tickets per game in a wealthy metropolis with an appetite for sports and entertainment. Another reason the London market is like none other in Europe is television, with Sky Sports paying the NFL for rights to broadcast more than 80 live games each season, as well as a slate of marquee games broadcast live on the free-to-air Channel 4.

Every few months comes another reminder that the NFL’s momentum overseas is growing. The latest was two weeks ago: The announcement of a 10-year partnership with Tottenham Hotspur to play at least two NFL games per year at the English Premier League club’s new stadium in North London, due to open in 2018. Wembley Stadium, which has an agreement with the NFL through 2016, could continue to be a host, and the league is also looking into occasional games at Twickenham Stadium, an 82,000-seat rugby venue on the city’s outskirts. The London experiment grows, with more venues and more options.

The NFL’s latest business strategy in London has been a profitable one. (It wouldn’t continue otherwise.) But there is a downside of a top-down business model designed to showcase the best product, NFL regular-season games, and hoping interest trickles down. Outside of the four countries where the NFL has an office on the ground—the U.K., Canada, Mexico and China—the league is largely disconnected from the grass-roots efforts that might grow the game from the bottom up. There is an international organizing body for the sport, IFAF, but the infrastructure is not strong and in Europe, politics between different countries’ own football organizations have interfered with unified growth.

“The honest answer [for how we follow leagues overseas] is on a very ad hoc basis and, at the moment, with no real formal process for tracking and measuring it,” Waller says. “It’s probably an area where we could really get better at it, because where you have these leagues starting up and these teams playing, it would be incredibly useful for us to know what the standards are and potentially scouting players.”

The league has statistics that demonstrate ways in which the London games have encouraged the growth of the game from the ground up: Participation in amateur football in the U.K., for example, has risen by about 15% per year since the International Series began in 2007. But it’s different from the days of NFL Europe, when coaches like Tomsula roamed the continent for weeks after the season ended to put on camps and clinics with local players and coaches. He remembers working on defensive line technique with a promising young German teenager on a practice field in Berlin one summer. The player’s name? Bjoern Werner.

The final game in NFL Europe history was an All-German affair. Jermaine Allen and the Hamburg Sea Devils defeated the Frankfurt Galaxy 37-28 in World Bowl XV, played at Frankfurt's Commerzbank Arena on June 23, 2007. (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The Örebro Black Knights’ planned trip to London demonstrates the way in which many leagues in Europe view the NFL’s expanded international presence—an opportunity for mutual growth.

Beverly, the Black Knights head coach, hopes the Jets-Dolphins game in London will be a chance to reconnect with NFL contacts who are usually a continent away. He and the Jets’ senior director of football operations, Clay Hampton, used to attend Jets practices together as kids to watch their dads, Super Bowl III hero Randy Beverly, Sr. and longtime equipment manager Bill Hampton. New Jets receivers coach Karl Dorrell was Beverly’s college teammate at UCLA.

There are similar connections all over between the NFL and teams in Europe. The Oakland Raiders have a so-called sister team in Austria, the Swarco Raiders, a relationship that has included hosting their coaches at training camp in Napa and running Swarco’s game recaps on the team website. The London Warriors’ defensive coordinator, Aden Durde, spent last summer as an intern assistant for the Dallas Cowboys; this year the Cowboys signed one of Durde’s players, British defensive end Efe Obada, before minicamp.

The NFL’s hurdles to establishing a foothold overseas go well beyond the obvious (for instance, competition from the world’s most popular sport, soccer). In Germany, the game’s top organizers still have hard feelings over the impact NFL Europe had on their local club teams.

Today, there are 250 clubs and 500 individual teams playing American football in Germany alone, from youth flag up to senior semi-pro. But during the years NFL Europe was open, particularly toward the end, when five of the league’s six teams were based in Germany, it siphoned away interest from local teams by offering a level of entertainment with which they couldn’t compete. More than 30,000 fans attended the German Bowl championship in 1999, but attendance and participation for German club teams steadily declined until NFL Europe folded.

“We opened some bottles of champagne, said hooray, they are gone, and then we stepped in the gap they left and rebuilt our whole organization,” says Robert Huber, president of the American Football Association of Germany. “There is no outcome at the end of day with the NFL for development of football in our country, because we are too different. We are just too different. The U.S.-focused sports world, which is pleasing to live in yourself, does not need anything from abroad because it is already existing on the highest level in its own country. But the world is bigger, and the movement outside the U.S. became totally independent.”

Huber uses the analogy of the Harlem Globetrotters—when they come to town, it may spark some interest in basketball, but it is a brand of the sport too glamorous and unattainable to help the local teams grow. He is not shy about a disinterest in an NFL presence: In his opinion, one NFL exhibition game played every five years, during the soccer league’s mid-summer offseason, is about all that would work in Germany.

But from the NFL’s perspective, Germany is an obvious satellite for international growth in the next few years. There are probably more NFL fans in Germany than the U.K., Waller estimates, thanks to NFL Europe. And as a result of stadium construction for the 2006 World Cup, he rattles off at least five German cities that could host NFL games: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Munich.

“We could sell them out,” Waller says. “We know a game is possible, and we would like to do one. We want to make sure we have the right TV deals and the right media availability in place. The timeline is really driven by that—similarly in Mexico and Brazil.”

To that end, the NFL made major headway this offseason. NFL TV coverage in Germany, outside of the last few Super Bowls, has traditionally been restricted to a pay channel. But a few weeks after Waller visited with sponsors and media partners, a three-year agreement with a free-to-air German TV channel was announced. The network will air a total of 43 NFL games this season, including two live regular-season games each Sunday, the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

“We were expecting this, because London seems to work,” Carsten Dalkowski, chairman of the German Football League, says of the NFL’s interest in holding a game in Germany. “The NFL needs to watch they don’t make the same mistakes as in the past. The main issue was they were not looking to some of the voices from the football movement here. Maybe they don’t need to, but I think they should. If they do this, there is no way they should fail.”

* * *

The NFL’s recent international strategy has been to proceed deliberately. Everything in London has been done as a stepwise trial, introducing new elements like a West Coast team in year two, and this year a divisional game and games on back-to-back weeks.

We know the goal the NFL has in mind: A team in London, with footholds in markets like Germany, Mexico and Brazil, where interest in the game is strong and growing. The question, though, always comes back to what is feasible.

Much of the conversation about the NFL’s international viability has centered on logistics, and rightfully so. Teams begin planning for London trips seven months in advance and ship over supplies as early as August. Volunteers to host London games were drying up, so new stipulations were passed requiring teams that are relocating or hosting a Super Bowl to give up a home game for London. Looming just as big as the five-hour time difference across the Atlantic Ocean, though, is bridging the gap between the NFL’s big business, and the love of the game (and post-game pizza) that fuels American football leagues in Europe.

“The failure is in taking the shield, the brand, and assuming it’s transferable without making it viable,” says Micael Jönsson, the former chairman of the Black Knights, who helped bring American football to Örebro after studying abroad in Indiana in the 1980s. “It feels like football is the last frontier for American sports, and it’s like they are clinging on. Maybe that’s beginning to change. There are more international players and coaches. It’s a good time to come together.”

The NFL has known since the 1980s that it could sell out a stadium in dozens of cities around the world. (Heck, in 1988, when most Swedes didn’t know American football was played by throwing a ball, more than 30,000 fans showed up for a game in Gothenburg). But getting the sport to stick—getting the NFL to stick—is a different challenge.

That’s why the NFL is trying to build toward a permanent outpost overseas, thinking bigger than just a series of games that are very successful marketing opportunities. They’ve helped plant seeds of interest in the game abroad over the past 30 years, but now they want to be in a position to harvest the fruits.

Tomsula, who coached in London, two cities in Scotland, Berlin and Rhein, is probably the NFL head coach who believes most in the league’s international efforts. He was the 49ers’ defensive line coach during their previous International Series games, and recalls he and his wife being invited to a pre-game tailgate thrown in London by some of the 10,000 or so fans who had come up from Germany.

“There’s an infrastructure there and there are people craving for the game,” he says. “I don’t see the time change or the travel as the challenge that I guess a lot of people who have never done it see it as. The London series is huge to me. I’d like it to grow. I do believe in it, and I believe it will work.”


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