The NFL Europe last month made Germany the continental stronghold of the sport by adding a fifth team. The hope: that American football's surprising success here will keep the league around longer.
Berlin (left) and Frankfurt have been the league's most successful teams
As Hamburg's soccer team, HSV, finishes up its season next spring, the northern city's newest sports addition will just be warming itself up.
Beginning in April, the Hamburg Sea Devils will become the fifth German football team to play in the NFL Europe, leaving the Amsterdam Admirals as the lone non-Teuton in the six-team American football league. The Sea Devils, the reincarnation of the now-defunct Scottish Claymores, join the Cologne Centurions, Rhein Fire, Frankfurt Galaxy and Berlin Thunder as the remnants of an ambitious plan by the US National Football League to bring American-style football to the old world.
Now, league officials are hoping that Germans' surprising love affair with the American sport will reverse the league's financial woes and allow them breathing room to wage a Europe-wide launch in the future.
"I think if we were starting this league today ... the model we would have used is the model we have evolved into now, concentrating more in one geographical area," said David Tossell, a league spokesman. "We were probably guilty of spreading ourselves too thin around Europe, initially."
Starts and stops
When the World League of American Football launched in 1991 as a spring league designed to develop players for the National Football league, it boasted teams on three different continents, including European teams in Barcelona, Frankfurt and London. Though attendance in the European stadiums averaged between 20,000 and 40,000 fans, teams in the US and Canada didn't do as well and the league suspended operations in 1993.
The league's re-launch as the NFL Europe in 1995 was bankrolled entirely by owners of NFL teams who were interested not only in the league's player development possibilities, but also the additional marketing opportunities it offered. Barcelona, Frankfurt and London kept their teams, and Germany's Rhine region, Amsterdam and Scotland were added.
The Frankfurt Galaxy topped 36,000 in attendance in 1999 and has stayed as successful since then
"They knew Germany was a good market, but they didn't know that it would do that good," said Patrick Kessler, who covered the NFL Europe for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and is a columnist for the German-language football trade publication Huddle.
US affection boosts football
As attendance sunk in Barcelona and London, the number of fans increased in Frankfurt and the Rhine, hovering around 30,000 a game since 1999. Kessler attributes the success to the professional management of the German NFL teams, at least one of which has won the championship since 1998, and the country's postwar affection for the United States.
"Germans have a willingness to accept Americana, and American culture," said Kessler. "And football is a big part of that."
In 1999, the league moved the London Monarchs to Berlin. Four years later, Barcelona became the Cologne Centurions. Tossell attributed the closures to the lack of good stadiums and competition offered by other sports in London and Barcelona.
But German teams were also successful because of the way in which they reached out to different audiences. Teams like the Frankfurt Galaxy offer "power parties" three to four hours before each game with games and events designed to attract the entire family. The parking lot parties spill then spill into the stadium.
"What they offer appeals to different types of people, ages and everything," said Kessler.
Developing Dirk Nowitzki
Now the NFL Europe is planning on solidifying its base here. The league has begun cooperating with the existing German Football League, which has been a starting point for young German talent. Last month, the prestigious sports college in Cologne, the training ground for German referees, coaches and sports managers, began offering football seminars in cooperation with the local Centurions.
German Constantin Ritzmann played in the NFL Europe development programs before heading to the University of Tennessee and then the Buffalo Bills
The hope is that the measures will produce more players to follow in the footsteps of German players like Constantin Ritzmann (photo), a defensive lineman currently playing with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, or offensive lineman Patrick Venzke, who in 2001 became the first German to make an NFL team.
"A big part (of our future) is getting players to a level where they can go and compete in the NFL," said Tossell. "You only have to look at a guy like Yao Ming and the effect he's had in China on the NBA business. We don't have that yet."
Pressure to perform
Owners have been pleased with the way in which NFL Europe
St. Louis Rams quaterback Kurt Warner, right, played a few seasons in the NFL Europe before going on to win a Super Bowl with St. Louis
has developed players like Super Bowl quarterbacks Brad Johnson and Kurt Warner (photo), and Pro Bowl players like La'Roi Glover of the Oakland Raiders. But their patience seems to be wearing thin.
Many owners are starting to wonder whether supporting a minor league for American football is still worthwhile. At the annual NFL owners' meeting in the fall of 2003, a plan to keep the NFL Europe around passed by only one vote.
"They need to be successful pretty quickly," said Kessler.
Officials think Hamburg is the final piece in the puzzle. In concentrating the league in Germany, NFL Europe has more of a chance of striking national media sponsorships and television deals, said Tossell. After some success here, the league can think about making a second run at both old and new markets. It's something that can't happen soon enough, said Kessler.
"I'd like to see more teams from different countries," he said. "It's kind of unfortunate you'll have just German teams playing against one another rather than an English team, Spanish team or Italian team."