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ELF shows NFL who is boss

June 2, 2022

Tom Brady playing in Munich on November 13 is the headline for American football in Germany this year, but the general managers of the European League of Football (ELF) are changing the game for women in sports.

Claudia Nuener walks onto the field ahead of a Raiders Tirol game
Claudia Nuener (fourth from the right) is the GM of Raiders Tirol in the ELFImage: Bernhard Hörtnagl

While a far cry from the NFL, the ELF has already achieved a surprising feat within professional male sport — 25% of the 12 teams have female general managers. Though there was a record 12 female coaches during the 2021 NFL season, no head coaches or general managers across the 32 teams were women.

In the ELF, Diana Hoge (Berlin Thunder), Patricia Klemm (Rhine Fire) and Claudia Nuener (Raiders Tirol) represent that change.

"Working in the sports industry these days feels more like a job of purpose. We're not like doctors but we can create stories, reach people and try to change lives," Hoge told DW. "If you can reach some young people who haven't got the easiest lives and give them something, it makes doing this job worth it."

While fulfilling her childhood dream of working on a cruise ship, Hoge injured her right arm and believed she may never regain the use of her hand, but 20 years plus a host of jobs later, Hoge is a pioneer in a job she loves.

"It's sometimes frustrating in 2022 that it's still such a big topic having a woman in a position of power but on the other hand I am proud to be a role model," Hoge told DW. "To show that, even as a single mum, with hard work you can achieve wherever you want to."

Perfect timing

Last year's success of the inaugural ELF season - 35,000 attend the championship game in the western German city of Düsseldorf - was no real surprise. 

The league reintroduced a professional American football tournament on the continent, with many of the teams retaining their former NFL Europe (1991-2007) names and ensuring a connection with decades-old fanbases. Furthermore, the timing couldn't have been better.

Interest in the sport has been building in Germany for a long time. Local heroes in recent years have helped, and just last year, the NFL cited the country as being home to 19 million fans and with an NFL viewership that has been rising by 20% annually since 2017.

The ELF is building on that interest. The new season starts on June 4, and the league has grown from eight to 12 teams from five different countries.

Goalposts to general manager

One of the newcomers is a Raiders team led by Claudia Nuener, who has been the general manager of the Innsbruck-based organization for four years and played a key part in the Raiders becoming one of the newest teams in the ELF.

Working in a supportive and progressive workplace, where football (and other sports) are on offer for all and equality is a norm, Nuener gives short shrift to regressive mindsets.

"It's refreshing that there are two other female general managers but it should be normal," Nuener told DW. "There are often men and even at times women who are astonished or who think 'football and you're a woman?', but I answer 'correct' and then it's their problem ... I have never had the feeling that I can't do a job because I am woman. I just do the job as best as I can."

Patricia Klemm first watched Rhine Fire back when NFL Europe still existed, and went on to play the game in Germany before former coach and current Fire co-owner Martin Wagner offered her the job as GM last year.

Patricia Klemm playing for Bochum Miners
Patricia Klemm in action for Bochum MinorsImage: Debby Bialkowski

Being able to mix her knowledge of playing the game and her sports business management degree has given Klemm an edge, but getting a team with history in Europe back to former glory poses its own challenges.

"Since 2007, when NFL Europe folded, every year the city begging for the team to come back," Klemm told DW. "I feel that pressure because I know the whole city is watching me."

While the NFL leads the way on the field, it could certainly learn a thing or two off it from the ELF about the value and strength of a diverse staff.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding