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Posted on 08 Jan 2016 - Go back to news list
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American Football History in Europe!

Over the past few decades, the game of football has exploded across U.S. borders and is virtually played, watched, and overall enjoyed by millions worldwide. One region that experienced the most dramatic growth and change is, of course, Europe but how did it start?

Though football has been played recreationally by the American commnunity stationed in Europe since the end of World War II, it was not until the 1970's that football became part of the European culture. However, from 1976 when the first truly European team was formed (Frankfurt Lions), and 1978 when the first European football league was created (American Football League Germany), the sport has experienced a growth rate unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Today American Football is played in virtually every European country and has moved from being an exotic experience to a major European sport.

The first American football club in Europe was founded in 1976 in Frankfurt, Germany, by Alexander Sperber, Wolfgang Lehneis, and Dieter Heil. Christened the "Frankfurt Lions", this original club began exhibition play and were the early pioneers in creating interest throughout the rest of Germany and Europe.

Two years later, in 1978, the first American football federation and league were created. Originally formed as the American Football Bund Deutschland (AFBD), this German national league consisted of eight teams. Those original teams playing alongside the Frankfurt Lions were the Ansbach Grizzlies, Berlin Bears, Bremerhaven Sea-hawks, Düsseldorf Panthers, Erding Bulls, Kitzengen Colts, and the Munich Cowboys. At the end of the 1979 premier season the Frankfurt Lions were crowned as champions of the first "German Bowl".

Since that inaugural season the sport has been growing at an increasingly accelerated basis. Today there are thousands of clubs registered in Europe with various national federations and playing on a wide variety of skill and levels.

THE EUROPEAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (EFL), AND THE EUROPEAN FEDERATION OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL (EFAF)



A major development in the sport came in 1981 when the desire for higher and broader competition led to the foundation of the EFL. The EFL was not to be understood as an international league, but rather as an all-encompassing federation that would loosely tie all the national football federations together in a close working relationship. The obvious goals were to standardize rules and play in Europe, and to work toward the continued growth of the sport.

One of the EFL's projects was the organization and promotion of the first European championship tournament held in Italy. The 1981 competition was between the national all-star teams from Great Britain, Finland, Germany, and first year champion Italy.

Though the EFL did much to increase the interest in football and managed to keep the European Championships for national teams going every two years, the overall results were judged to be poor. It was obvious the EFL could only be as strong as the national federations supporting it. At this time the EFL was the head of a weak structure composed mostly of disorganized and financially unsound federations.

However, despite organizational and financial problems, the EFL continued to make some progress on a European level. The drive by various teams for higher levels of play brought about the formation in 1986 of the Euro-Bowl Tournament. Played every year, the "Euro Bowl" is a competition between each federation's national champion from the previous year. Though not perfect in concept, it did allow the dream of European competition to take place on a limited basis.

In the end, EFL failed because it lacked professional management, resources, and financial support from its underlying members. In 1994 the member federations, knowing that a solution needed to be found, re-organized into the new "European Federation of American Football" (EFAF) which was then replaced, in 2014, by IFAF Europe, the governing body of American football in Europe.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE IN EUROPE



The National Football League (NFL) is the largest and richest professional league in the world. To maintain a growing and healthy market the NFL researched the possibility of expanding internationally. What they found was a dynamically growing European market. This information led to the first NFL football game played in Europe. In 1983 at Wembley, England the Arizona Cardinals played against the Minnesota Vikings. And then in 1986, at Wembley again, the initial "American Bowl" game was played (Chicago Bears vs. Dallas Cowboys). This success was quickly followed by other "American Bowl" games in successive years in places such as Tokyo, Japan; London, England; Berlin, Germany; and Barcelona, Spain.

The initial success for the first years concerning the crowd attendance led the NFL to create a concept around "The NFL Comes to Europe". The idea of the World League was born.

THE WORLD LEAGUE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL (WLAF)



The World league began operation in Europe in 1990, with the first games played in the spring 1991. The league was originally comprised of seven teams in the United States and Canada, and three European teams. The European teams represented by Spain (Barcelona, Dragons), Great Britain (London Monarchs), and Germany (Frankfurt Galaxy).

With the World League came high expectations for success in Europe, and the belief that through the NFL's support the overall football community would benefit from the exposure and leadership offered by the World League. They became the model to follow for European clubs in terms of staging events and style of play.

Initially, the football community was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the overall resources that the World League seemed to command in terms of financing such areas as marketing, merchandising, advertising, TV, public relations, administrative staffs, facilities, player salaries, etc. These resources were completely unknown in Europe and organizations were forced to stand aside (willingly at first) and watch the NFL's attempts to dominate the market.

The major problem came when the World league, under its original concept did not work and was forced to close after the second season. The damage done to the sport in terms of sponsorship and media credibility was sever and many teams suffered or went bankrupt because of it.

However, the idea of the World League reopening under a new format was kept alive. In 1995 the World League opened under a format that included only six European teams: the three existing European teams (London, Barcelona and Frankfurt) were joined by three new teams in Amsterdam (the Admirals), Düsseldorf (Rhein Fire) and Edinburgh (Scottish Claymores).

By the end of the 1997 season, there were growing concerns that WLAF markets, except Germany, were not living up to their potential. Average attendance for the Monarchs was around 10,000 in 1995–97. Radical changes were made to the two British teams. The London Monarchs would become the England Monarchs, playing home games in London, Birmingham and Bristol and switching their colors from blue, gold and red to red, white and black. Also, the Scottish Claymores would divide their schedule between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Then, at a press conference in San Diego during Super Bowl XXXII weekend, the league announced it too would be changing: the league would be rebranded as NFL Europe. For the league's last season, 2007, it officially changed its name to NFL Europa to reflect the name of Europe in most European languages, including Dutch and German.

The league's squads were predominantly assigned by NFL teams, who wanted these younger, developmental players to get additional game experience and coaching. The NFL assumed the expenses of players and coaches living in Europe. The European six-team format was maintained for 12 seasons, from 1995–2007, but by 2007 five teams were based in Germany. On 29 June 2007, the NFL announced the end of NFL Europa.

Since 2007 the most prominent intra-European competitions have been the BIG6 league, European Football League, EFAF Cup (2002–2013), and EFAF European Championship.

THE HAMBURG BLUE DEVILS



From a historical research stand point the Hamburg Blue Devils were a major turning point in the growth of European football. They were an organization that proved that there was a large market for a European based team. They only needed a different strategy to take advantage of it. When the Hamburg Blue Devils formed in 1992 their management decided not to join the AFVD, which is the German national Federation of American Football. It was the first time that a new team chose not to participate in the National league system.

Instead they created a team based on German amateurs who were highly committed to the sport. Along with this, the management obtained exclusive rights on approximately a dozen American and Canadian College football players (mostly from small schools) and a highly qualified U.S. coaching staff to strengthen their football program. Up to this point, no European football program had taken such huge steps.

The Blue Devils idea was to play only against the best and toughest teams that Europe had to offer and to become the dominant power based on a solid group of German talent and blending that with import players. In 2 ½ years no European team was able to beat them.

At the same time the Hamburg management did the necessary steps to place the team well in the public. From the very beginning, they obtained the first ever radio and TV contracts as well as outstanding public relations work. The result was the Blue Devils were able to build a solid fan base, which on average was ten times larger than the best teams in Europe. In the entire city of Hamburg, they were known as THE TEAM.

Some of the native players as well as the American representatives had reached a status of stars similar to a few German soccer idols. Blue Devil games were the big show. Their merchandise became a fashion statement. In their third year the Hamburg Blue Devils average 10,400 spectators a game. An incredible feat in Europe considering that they only had a budget 20% of the present NFL/WLAF programs.

After their second season the Hamburger example had drawn so much interest the other top European teams, wanting to emulate the Hamburg success, joined together with the Blue Devils and founded the Football League of Europe.

To the outside world the Hamburg Blue Devils represented the highest example of Europe football. Everything they did seemed to be first class. The things that no other team could match were, playing on Television, playing in first class stadium, top of the line merchandise sales, large crowds, etc. to the rest of the football community in Europe the "Blue Devils" were equal to the World League in quality, but with a lower budget.

On the inside, the Hamburg organization was based with financial problems. Though the Hamburg football team had turned into a large financial bonanza, the original promoters started the project with little financial resources. Capital was generated only from operations, with no backup financial support or investment. The result was a profitable operation on paper, but with severe cash flow problems that threatened the operation. In the end the Hamburg management was forced to trim back operations to such a scale that it ruined their credibility and team. However, considerable credit should go to Hamburg for validating market research and for showing the rest of Europe what was possible.

THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE OF EUROPE (FLE)



The FLE was supposed to be a loose organization based on an agreement of eight teams to play international games against each other. These teams were for the most part champions from their various national federations who were seeking higher levels of competition than they could obtain in their own country.

Along with the Blue Devils, The Munich Thunder, Berlin Bears and the Frankfurt Gamblers were the representatives from Germany. The Great Britain Spartans, 1989 Euro-Bowl Champion; Amsterdam Crusades, three time Euro-Bowl Champions; Helsinki Roosters, 1989 champion; and the Stockholm Nordic Vikings, which was essentially the Swedish National Team; belonged to the elite group entering the FLE.

The premier season of the FLE saw the Stockholm Nordic Vikings winning the FLE-Bowl by beating the Hamburg Blue Devils, 43-35 in front of 22,000 spectators. The crowd was the largest ever to attend a European football game.

For FLE the first year was a great sporting success. It was by far the best football played and experienced in Europe by Europeans. However, it was not a year without severe problems that threatened the very existence of the league.

Though the FLE represented some of the best European football teams, they were structurally from the old school of American football in Europe. For the most part the teams were still organized as "vereins". The financial and administrative resources necessary to compete on a European level stretched the organizations to a near breakpoint. They simply did not possess the knowledge nor the organizational capability to take advantage of the opportunity and market place.

The FLE also took enormous pressure from the World League, who saw a successful FLE as a major threat. The net result was that the FLE restructured forming new professional management. The 1995 version of the FLE competed with just 5 teams, but overall were more successful in terms of professional style management and resources.

With the move of the Hamburg Blue Devils into the German Football League after the 1994 season the league had lost their flagship team. Three other teams resign to start in the American Football League of Europe.

MEDIA COVERAGE, EUROPEAN FOOTBALL



Along with the growth of American football in Europe has been the steady increase in media coverage. In fact, the media coverage is a direct reflection and recognition of the interest in the sport by the general population. In other words, the media is aware of what the public wants to hear, read, or watch. The reality is the media coverage has been greater than the sport teams’ ability to take advantage of it properly.

Although the NFL and later the World League received most of the football coverage within the various TV-stations, DSF's (Deutsches Sport Fernsehen) exclusive coverage of the FLE during their premier season showed how successful European American football can be promoted and watched in the television public.

SUMMARY


There is no doubt that the game of American football has grown a tremendous amount in the last forty years. However, the sport has reached a critical point in its development. The future belongs to those European organizations who can break the mold of the past and establish themselves as a viable, well financed and managed organization. Growth is based on consistent European competition, where the interest of sponsors, fans, and media has the greatest intensity.

Source: T. Holland
Posted by Don Clemons 2 years ago
Good stuff! Enjoyed this information.
Posted by Europlayers 2 years ago
Good point! The article has been updated. Also thanks for the FootballGeography.com link. Very useful!
Posted by JM Henriksen 2 years ago
"This information led to the first NFL football game played outside the United States. In 1988 at Goteborg, Sweden the Chicago Bears played against the Minnesota Vikings in front of 35,000 fans"

This information is somewhat flawed. The first NFL game played outside the US was played in Canada in 1960 (and that's excluding the NFL vs. CFL games of the 1950s) featuring the Bears vs. the Giants, with the first NFL game played in Europe being in 1983 (The Global Cup, featuring the Vikings and Cardinals), followed by the initial American Bowl game in 1986 (Bears vs. Cowboys). Both those two games were played at Wembley. I guess you could say the Gothenburg game was the first NFL football game played in continental Europe.

For anyone interested, FootballGeography.com has an extensive list on the subject: http://www.footballgeography.com/international-nfl-games/