Was Closing NFL Europe a Good Move?

Official logos of NFL Europe/Europa.
Official logos of NFL Europe/Europa.

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By the time I arrived in Europe to play my first season for the Brussels Bulls in 2008, NFL Europe had been closed only a few months. The National Football League, under the guidance of newly elected commissioner Roger Goodell, officially disbanded its NFL Europe league on June 29th, 2007. In doing so, hundreds of thousands (if not, millions) of fans across Europe and the United States were left displaced and disillusioned, resulting in a nostalgia for the days when NFL Europe was in its heyday.

Yet there are two sides to this story, and though it certainly may not have appeared to be the case at first, the NFL is just as committed as ever to building a fan base in Europe. Let’s start with a brief history of the league for some perspective.

NFL Europe was originally founded as the World League of American Football in 1989 as a spring developmental league for the NFL and played its first season in 1991. The league was established with teams in both Europe and the United States, and from its outset dealt with major problems, in particular a lack of public interest which resulted in low attendance. The league shut down following just its second season in 1992, but returned in 1995 with 6 teams as an entirely European league. The league then continued uninterrupted until 2007, stopping only to change its name to NFL Europe in 1998. The league again changed its name to NFL Europa in 2006 to reflect local languages, before ultimately folding after the following season in 2007.

European teams such as the London Monarchs, Barcelona Dragons, and Frankfurt Galaxy were among the founding members of the league, and in 1995 they were joined by the Amsterdam Admirals, Rhein Fire, (Düsseldorf) and Scottish Claymores (Edinburgh). However, after only a few years of existence it became clear that teams outside of Germany were struggling to build, or even maintain, fan support. Teams in London, Edinburgh, and Barcelona eventually ceased operations and were replaced by three German teams: the Berlin Thunder, Cologne Centurions, and Hamburg Sea Devils. The Amsterdam Admirals remained the only NFL Europe team outside of Germany.

Hamburg Sea Devils vs. Frankfurt_Galaxy (Torsten Bolten, AFpix.de)
Hamburg Sea Devils vs. Frankfurt Galaxy (Torsten Bolten, AFpix.de)

While average fan attendance began to grow due to the consolidation of its teams in cities with greater support, it was not enough to convince the NFL to continue its operations. The National Football League and its owners decided it wasn’t worth the investment in a developmental league and chose to cease operations. The league closed down following the 2007 season and there has been no serious attempt at a replacement league since.

It’s easy to criticize the move, as American football fans throughout Europe were – and still are – disappointed that the league wasn’t given more time to develop. However, some interesting things began to take place in the years since NFL Europe folded.

For starters, the NFL followed through on its commitment to promote the league in Europe, establishing the NFL International Series immediately following the cessation of NFL Europe operations. The league started with its first regular season game in Europe in 2007, a match that saw the New York Giants (eventual Super Bowl champions later that year) and Miami Dolphins square off at Wembley Stadium, with the Giants winning a close game, 13-10. The NFL continued playing one game per season at Wembley, until the 2013 season when they raised that number to two per season. This year, Wembley is hosting 3 regular season games for the first time in its history. This whole process cleared way for American football fans in Europe to focus their attention on the game’s most-superior league, the NFL.

Football in Europe has also grown immensely in the years following the demise of NFL Europe. Much of that has to do with the increase in interest at the national level within most European countries, as well as the availability to access NFL broadcasts on local stations or over the internet. The sudden leap forward in technology and connectivity has only enhanced the National Football League’s status abroad, and there is nowhere in the world where the game is growing faster than in Europe. European players also began to slowly develop a presence in the NFL, notably Sebastian Vollmer (Germany), Sebastian Janikowski (Poland), Michael Roos (Estonia), Margus Hunt (Estonia), Osi Umenyiora (England), Zoltan Mesko (Romania), and Lawrence Tynes (Scotland). This led to increased publicity in their respective countries and further awareness of the game of American football.

During the existence of NFL Europe (1991-1992, 1995-2007), European fans had minimal exposure to NFL games. Instead, they were privy to NFL Europe teams who had no consistency with team rosters, who weren’t investing steadily in local marketing, and claimed minimal public interest. Most players were on the roster for one year before moving on to the NFL, CFL, or arena leagues in North America. Fans grew to be disenchanted because their favorite players were guaranteed to leave after the end of the season. Although fans were watching a high-level of football, they were watching second-tier players from the United States instead of first-tier players from their own country. Plus, several teams closed down and the league’s future was perceived to be uncertain at best. There was a bit of a disconnect in these respects, which resulted in a lack of loyalty among fans, causing growth to remain stagnant for the league’s entire existence.

Nowadays, European fans get the best exposure possible to American football. National leagues are growing rapidly, with new teams popping up every week. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy have hundreds of teams at all levels from youth through adult leagues. Many countries also have flag teams and women’s teams, indicating the wide appeal of the game. Fans also have the option of watching NFL games on local TV stations, streaming live NFL games online through NFL Game Pass, or making the trek to London to see a game in-person in London.

It’s not necessarily the act of closing down NFL Europe that led to many of these developments, but rather it allowed the world’s greatest league to refocus its efforts on expanding the profile of the NFL itself. By making the top level of American football available to anyone with an internet connection, it has helped the game grow exponentially throughout Europe. Eventually, we may even see an NFL team in London, something that has become a real possibility over the last few years. Either way, we’ll continue to benefit from the growth of American football throughout Europe.

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November 1, 2014

Comment Rules: We're all here for the same reason, which means we all have the same goal to help grow the game of American football. Focus on what brings us together instead of what makes us different. Anything overtly negative will just be deleted. Be supportive, not critical. Be helpful, not hurtful. That's what a real community does.

  • Michael De Nolf

    Seeing how popular American football has become in Europe since 2007 I guess we can say the NFL did a good job promoting the game (especially with the international games).
    The NFL Europe was and still is a good idea, but I think it was too ambitious at time being.

    I don’t believe American NFL teams should relocate in Europe, simply because it would mess up the NFL schedule and it would also be too hard for teams in Europe to compete with the U.S. teams in the first 10 years that would follow… In a game like American Football it is probably best to avoid jetlag being a factor. Not only will it influence the players performance and ultimately the results of the games, but it also sounds quiet unsafe for the players themselves!
    If the NFL wants to expand in Europe again, they could think about investing in already existing European teams. (ex. Berlin Adler, Flash de la Courneuve, Vienna Vikings, Thonon-les-Bain Black Panthers, London Blitz or the Brussels Bulls, etc…). The focus should also be on the local players first, because like you were saying Travis Brody; “People never got the opportunity to get attached to the best NFL Europe players… They would leave for the U.S. or Canada at the end of the season”.
    The level of the game in Europe should get time to develop before making Americans pro’s play for European teams… or maybe put a limit on the amount of U.S. players on a team at first…
    What do you think guys?

  • Michael, you made some great points there…particularly about NFL Europe perhaps being a bit too ahead of its time. Those are also some interesting questions about the potential problems facing a future NFL team in London (or elsewhere in Europe). Things like jetlag influencing players’ performance on the field as well as their health are not to be taken lightly, as you pointed out. We’ll be addressing many of these concerns in future articles. Thanks!

  • Barbara Schmidt

    Please don’t compare the NFL Europe with the NFL International Series. I attended the Cowboys game in London this year (being a huge Cowboys fan for over 20 years now), but although we won and it was a great game I would have traded this game for every of my second love, the Frankfurt Galaxy! The crowd at Wembley was bored and boring.. not knowing anything about the game. It was more like “oh, NFL is in town. I heard it is fun, let’s go”.. on top of that, the prices are horrendous!

    and I still would love to see that business case which made them cancel the league stating it is too expensive..

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Travis is the founder and main contributor of The Growth of a Game.

A former quarterback from Southern California and current sports executive, Travis developed a passion for advancing the game of American football in Europe during his three seasons as a player and coach for the Brussels Bulls. He's now the President of Premier Class Consulting, a consulting firm that specializes in strengthening sports teams and organizations of all levels.

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