American Football in Europe has come a long way over the past 35 years. Many local teams were established in Germany, Austria, and Italy during the late 70’s and early 80’s, and during that time, the NFL sent teams over to London and Berlin to promote their sport through friendly games in front of sell-out crowds. In 1991, the World League of American Football was established as an NFL farm league with ten teams from five different countries who played for the so-called World Bowl.
Over the course of the next 16 years, the league would go through a two-year hiatus (1993-94), be renamed twice (first to NFL Europe in 1995, then to NFL Europa in 2006), and the league would be consolidated to purely European teams. By 2007, the Frankfurt Galaxy were the only NFL Europe team still remaining from the original 1991 World League of American Football. During this time span, the Galaxy attracted an average of 31,500 fans for home games in Frankfurt’s legendary Waldstadion and its successor, the Commerzbank Arena. Without a doubt, the Galaxy was the flagship organization of the NFL’s developmental league in Europe.
On June 23rd, 2007, the four-time champion Frankfurt Galaxy lost World Bowl XV in their home stadium to the Hamburg Sea Devils 37-28. After the game, most of the 48,000 attendants left Commerzbank Arena with tears in their eyes, myself included. As four-time World Bowl champions, the Galaxy had been the winningest franchise in league history, so the loss was heartbreaking for its fans and the team’s staff. Even though their 8th trip to the World Bowl wasn’t crowned by success, many hoped the Galaxy would again challenge for their 5th title the following season.
That hope quickly vanished six days later on June 29th when the NFL announced the closure of NFL Europe. Commissioner Roger Goodell shut down the developmental league on the “old continent” due to strategic reasons. The NFL chose to adjust its international strategy to focus more on meaningful regular season games outside the U.S. rather than investing millions of dollars into a farm system with only mild payoffs. I’m sure players like Kurt Warner, Adam Vinatieri or James Harrison might think otherwise. NFL Europe served its purpose to lay the groundwork for a European fan base of the All-American sport and the league moved onto the next chapter of globalizing the game, now known as the NFL International Series.
With their beloved NFL Europe teams forever gone, many American football fans in Europe – specifically in Germany – fell into a hole. Additionally, over 120 front office employees and many national players were suddenly unemployed.
The Darmstadt Diamonds, for instance, were playing Bundesliga football (GFL) only 35 km away from Frankfurt. However, NFL Europe had been light-years ahead of other European football leagues from a budget, competitive, and event organization standpoint, so the transition for fans from NFL Europe to the GFL was often difficult. Additionally, as a true sports fan you’re unlikely to switch teams easily, as was often the case for fans who grew up rooting for the “men in purple” (a common nickname for the Frankfurt Galaxy). For example, if the New York Giants were relocated to another city or completely vanished, a die-hard Giants fan wouldn’t suddenly change heart and become a Jets fan for the rest of his life.
The passion for the “Men in Purple” was so strong that a few staff members and fans of Frankfurt’s football team decided to keep the Galaxy spirit alive. Just three weeks after the closure of NFL Europe, they founded their own football club. The NFL still owned the naming rights for the Galaxy brand, so the team was named the “AFC Universe Frankfurt e.V.”, adopting the same colors as the Galaxy – purple and orange.
The new team had to start from rock bottom in the fifth German league (Landesliga Hessen, South-West Region) and worked its way up little by little. In the team’s first season in 2008, the Universe finished 2nd and were promoted along with the 1st place Gießen Golden Dragons to the fourth league (Oberliga Hessen/Rheinland-Pfalz). In 2009, the Universe went undefeated and moved another step on the ladder to the third division. They finished 5-5 in the German third league (Regionalliga Mitte) in 2010 and gained some experience for the upcoming season. In 2011, the Galaxy finished 2nd with only one loss and were promoted to the 2nd division of the German Football League (GFL2). For the past two years, the Universe were playing in the upper echelons of the GFL2’s South Division, finishing the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons at 9-4-1, 9-4-1, and 8-6 respectively.
During the club’s annual general meeting in June 2014, its chairmen elected to outsource the men’s first team for the upcoming season to form the “Frankfurter Football Betriebs GmbH & Co. KG”, directed by entrepreneur Matthias Mämpel. Under German law, a registered federation (e.V.) is prohibited from earning profits. In order to attract new sponsors, sell merchandise, etc., the move had to be made to set up a more professional environment. Still, the biggest bang was yet to follow. After 7 years, the rights to the Galaxy name and brand were no longer protected by the NFL, so the Universe leaders decided to bring back the Frankfurt Galaxy name in 2015.
This bold move wasn’t received with joy from everyone. For instance, former Galaxy great Daniel “The Bull” Benetka was furious and immediately canceled his honorary membership. “When the Frankfurt Galaxy stopped breathing in 2007, a part of me also died forever. We founded the Universe full of passion, striving to give the fans and friends of our Galaxy a new home. With the help of many volunteers and players that gave their heart to the organization, we were able to establish the Universe and celebrate successes. I was proud to be one of the founding members. To rename the Universe into the Galaxy at this point feels like a punch in the face to me and should be the same to all Universe fans.” Benetka wasn’t alone in his disgust. A few other former players and some fan clubs will boycott the new Galaxy – which has the subline “by Universe” in its brand name – and may criticize CEO Matthias Mämpel’s every move. Fan advisor Michael Kunze quickly responded. “Right now we have to deal with a lot of naysayers that we haven’t seen in years. All of a sudden critics have shown up whom were never involved with the original Galaxy.“
On the other hand, there are household names like Martin Latka (Galaxy RB from 2004-2007) and Markus Grahn (German national team coach 2005-2007, Universe HC 2007-2012) that strongly support the new Galaxy. Latka contributed to the Universe on the field since its inception as a running back and linebacker over the past 7 years. Grahn was the head coach of the Universe from 2007 to 2012 and will be the new Galaxy head coach in 2015. During the past two seasons he was part of Dresden Monarchs’ coaching staff, guiding the GFL team to a German Bowl berth and a national semi-final, respectively.
Michael Kunze wants to manage the expectations of Galaxy fans. “The new team is no longer a professional NFL Europe team. Instead we’re talking about semi-pro GFL2 team. We need to stay realistic.” Team supporters should not to expect any wonders – you simply cannot compare the level of play of both Galaxy teams. This new team won’t play in the 40,000 seat Commerzbank Arena nor will there be a full roster of professionals. entirely of German players. Similar to John Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza” (Amazon: USA/UK/FR/ES/DE/IT) American players are of major importance to a team’s success in the upper leagues.
In any event, the creation of the new Galaxy marks a new period in team history. Additionally, a breeze of fresh air is blowing through football in Germany, similar to Uli Honeneß’s decision to bring FC Bayern basketball to the top of the Bundesliga. A brand like Bayern Munich or the Frankfurt Galaxy can revive a whole sport from its deep sleep.
For the upcoming season many players of international acclaim have already signed with the Galaxy, even though the team still plays in GFL2. Quarterback Emmanuel Lewis (26, New Mexico Highlands University) and defensive lineman Brandon Collier (28, University of Massachusetts & Swarco Raiders) are the two main US imports that have already been announced. The Galaxy also signed Austrian wide receiver Laurinho Walch (22, Vienna Vikings), one of the most sought after young pass catchers in Europe. “When you come over here as an import player, money-wise you’ll earn a modest salary. But football-wise you’ll be offered a great opportunity to grow as a player thanks to our professional coaching,” says Kunze.
Mark your calendars, the team’s first home game in 2015 will be played on May 23rd against the München Rangers at Volksbank stadium. Like a phoenix* rising from the ashes, the Galaxy will be back in Frankfurt 2015.
*Note: The phoenix is a mythical bird with fiery plumage that lives up to 100 years. Near the end of its life, it settles in to its nest of twigs which then burns ferociously, reducing bird and nest to ashes. And from those ashes, a fledgling phoenix rises – renewed and reborn.
Björn Hesse is a guest contributor from Berlin, Germany. Having been a Frankfurt Galaxy fan since childhood, he played linebacker for the Leipzig Lions in Germany’s third league (Regionalliga-Ost) from 2003 to 2008. He worked as a PR intern for the Galaxy during the 2006 season when the team won its fourth and final World Bowl title in Düsseldorf against the Amsterdam Admirals. Since 2014, Björn has worked for the Berlin Adler – the reigning Euro Bowl champions – in PR and Social Media Marketing. He currently writes about the Berlin Adler and the Indianapolis Colts for the German magazine HUDDLE and www.football-aktuell.de. You can reach him via his Twitter handle @bjoernhesse.