For American football fans in Europe getting a kick out of spectacular tackles, touchdowns and tailgating, watching a live game in the US or London has been an expensive exercise. Ticket costs alone can reach into the thousands, let alone flights and accommodation.
But good news arrived on Wednesday, as the National Football League (NFL) announced that it will hold its first-ever regular season games on German soil in Munich and Frankfurt over the next four years.
The much-anticipated announcement came four days before the Super Bowl, the biggest single sporting event in the world, and 15 years after the last NFL Europe game took place in Germany.
With its large and growing NFL fan base, as well as being one of the world's biggest economies, Germany is a key market for the sport's global expansion plans. NFL Germany managing director Alexander Steinforth told DW that fans could "expect an all-American experience," with year-round activities such as team tours, fan fests and watch parties planned.
Sebastian Uhrich, a business professor at the German Sport University Cologne, told DW that hosting American football games will bring an image boost to Munich and Frankfurt.
"You can expect people from the UK, Spain and elsewhere to travel there for the games," Uhrich said. "This means additional income opportunities, international awareness and other benefits, all without much of an investment."
With some $15 billion in revenue in 2019 — close to three times more than the UK's Premier League brought in — the 32-team National Football League is the highest-grossing sports league in the world. According to Forbes, 11 of the 25 most valuable sports teams worldwide are NFL franchises.
Uhrich said the trend of highly professional and commercialized leagues' expanding to foreign markets started about two decades ago. "There's a natural saturation in their domestic markets, so at some point, the only way to gain a large number of new fans and substantially increase revenues is by internationalizing your brand."
A growing number of NFL players with ties to Germany have helped in this regard. In the past season, at least six players with German roots had a contract with an NFL team, among them New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson, who was born in Stuttgart.
The NFL is not without its own controversies, however. Former quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protest and the subsequent collusion lawsuit is a black mark against the organisation. While the adverse effects of the collision sport on players' health, such as links to neurodegenerative disorders due to repeated head trauma, led to a $1 billion settlement.
Most recently, the former African American head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Brian Flores, sued the league for alleged racial discrimination.
77 years of American football in Germany
For the first three decades after World War II, American football was played exclusively by GIs stationed in Germany. In 1976, a series of games between US college teams gave thousands of Germans a first glimpse of the US sport. A year later, the first American football club — the Frankfurter Löwen — was founded before others followed and the first regular competition formed in 1979.
The NFL played the first of five preseason games in Berlin's Olympiastadion in 1990 and even kick-started a global league a year later, rebranding it to NFL Europe in 1995 with six European teams. The five teams in Germany helped popularize the sport, partly because they stuck around longer and were more successful than the four non-German NFL Europe teams.
Nevertheless, the NFL shut down its loss-generating European cousin in 2007, the same year it staged its first regular season game at London's Wembley Stadium. According to Steinforth, up to 15% of people attending the hitherto 30 games came over from Germany.
Today, there are 500 registered teams with more than 70,000 members in Germany, according to the German Olympic Sports Confederation. The annual championship game, the German Bowl, attracted more than 20,000 fans in 2019. A new professional European League of Football, a kind of NFL Europe 2.0 launched last year, expanded to a dozen teams this season, including two in Austria and one in Turkey.
Any given Sunday
Elena Kassel, 28, told DW that she fell in love with the NFL and American culture when she attended games while working as an au pair in Washington, DC. She has been hooked ever since.
"I like the NFL partly because of all the social activities around the games like tailgating," the avid Green Bay Packers fan said. "American football is also a really strategic sport, with unique team traditions like the Lambeau Leap."
According to the NFL, Kassel is one of 19 million American football fans in Germany, though only 3.8% of respondents named American football as their favorite sport in a recent survey.
Still, the number of people staying up late to watch the Super Bowl has been climbing steadily: Viewership quadrupled from 580,000 in 1999, the year the annual spectacle was first broadcast on German free TV, to an impressive 2.23 million last year.
A major driver behind this increase has been the popularity of homegrown TV personalities such as two-time Super Bowl champion Sebastian Vollmer and on-screen social media guru Icke Dommisch. The crew of the "ranNFL" show, now in its 10th year, has found a way to cater to seasoned supporters and newbies alike by engaging viewers and explaining the rules in an often cheeky way.
To adapt or to stay authentic
Steinforth said the NFL would try to emulate some marketing strategies that it used during the 2007 London series. One such gimmick was using the Union Jack in merchandising and on the pitch.
But Uhrich said German fans would want a more authentic experience.
"I expect Germans to want the stars and stripes, the original character of the NFL," Uhrich said. He recommends opening stores in Germany and offering merchandise in German sizes.
Four NFL teams have secured the rights to market their brand in Germany: Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots, whose former superstar quarterback, Tom Brady, retired earlier this month after 22 seasons in the NFL and seven Super Bowl wins.
How much will the NFL grow in Germany?
Given the steadily growing interest in American football among Germans and the NFL's presence over the past three decades, it's not a question of if the NFL will further grow its fan base through the Munich and Frankfurt games, but by how much.
"Depending on how the first four games go, the plan is to turn those four years on the ground into many more," Steinforth said.
Sports marketing expert Uhrich, meanwhile, doesn't expect too much growth from the NFL in Germany in the short and medium term.
"I can see the NFL gaining a bit more market share, but the German sports market is quite traditional and saturated," Uhrich said.
"There's a huge dominance of soccer, which I don't expect to vanish anytime soon," he added. "Plus, many other team sports like handball, hockey or basketball have been trying to become more attractive for quite a while, and they only partly succeeded."
Edited by Janek Speight