In the NFL calendar, this is the quietest time of year. But in other parts of the world, summer is the high season for American football. Last year, The MMQB spent a week in June writing about the game being played north of the border, in the CFL. This summer, we decided to go across the Atlantic to explore how, where and why American football is being played in Europe.
We set out on this journey, in part, because of the NFL's interest in building on the successful London games and expanding internationally. The NFL has four international offices—in Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and China—and is exploring playing regular-season games or the Pro Bowl in Germany, Mexico or Brazil. The league's plan with the game overseas is sort of a top-down business model, hoping to hook new fans and new American football enthusiasts by staging big events that showcase their very best product, NFL regular-season games.
But what's going on in more than two-dozen countries across the European continent is an independent movement, the game being organized and played from a grass-roots level up. In Germany alone, for instance, there are 250 clubs and 500 individual teams playing American football, from youth flag to senior semi-pro.
"That's what is going to keep the sport there," says John McKeon, a 31-year-old former offensive lineman who created a website called American Football International after his own experiences playing and coaching in Finland, France and Italy. "They have taken American football, and made it their own, in their own way. American football in France is not the same as it is in Italy or Sweden or Germany. That's what convinced me that it is not a fad, that American football will not die out and everyone will go back to watching soccer."
McKeon was Philip Rivers' college left tackle at North Carolina State, but he became disenchanted with the sport after a short-lived shot at the NFL and an unpleasant stint playing arena football. When he tried playing in Europe, he found something I heard a lot on my trip overseas—a new love and appreciation for the game. American players in Europe receive a salary and have their accommodations paid for, but the vast majority of team rosters are local players who have regular 9-to-5 jobs and play football in their spare time often for nothing other than—just like the title of the John Grisham novel—post-game pizza with their teammates.
Over the next few days, The MMQB will give you snapshots of the game being played in different parts in Europe. We'll start in Braunschweig, Germany, where the powerhouse New Yorker Lions won the Eurobowl, the championship game of a continental series between some of the strongest teams in Germany, Austria and France. Next, we'll go to Milan, Italy, where former Jets scout Joe Bommarito spent nine months turning around one of the country's original American football clubs, the Milano Rhinos, taking them to the brink of the Italian Super Bowl. Finally, we'll go to Örebro, Sweden, where the Black Knights club, coached by Randy Beverly Jr. (yes, son of the Super Bowl III hero), is quite literally pounding the pavement to grow their team and their sport in their small city west of Stockholm.
What the leagues overseas lack in technique or skill level, they make up for in passion and fun and fascinating characters, in a way that we found really refreshing. We hope you agree.