American football enjoys a thriving subculture in Germany
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Sportpark sits just east of where the Berlin Wall once stood, on the front line of the Cold War. The distance from the stadium to West Berlin is just a few hundred yards, but between them stood a concrete barrier and a stretch of land known as the Death Strip, so called because East German soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who crossed it.
It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Yet the stadium, given its location and its history as a host for Soviet-era propaganda events, is an unlikely place for American football to have taken root and thrived. The Sportpark occasionally hosts soccer but is best known as the home of the Berlin Adler (adler is German for eagle), one of the most successful franchises in the history of the German Football League.
On Sundays in summer and early fall 1,000 or so loyal Adler fans gather at the stadium to support their team. Public address announcer Roman Motzkus -- also the team's financial officer and public relations director -- keeps the crowd engaged with cheers in German and English. Near the concession stands, which serve up grilled sausage and steak sandwiches, female cheerleaders sell German baked goods to raise money for uniforms and travel. Upstairs in the VIP section, boosters enjoy a traditional German buffet of sauerkraut, sausage and potato salad, as well as the best view of the action.
It's admittedly a few rungs below the NFL. The Adler are inconsistent in the secondary, on the offensive line and in special teams. But overall Berlin, which will face the Baltic Hurricanes in the German Bowl on Saturday in Frankfurt, play at a surprisingly high level. With three former American collegiate players -- linebacker Patrick O'neal, running back David McCants and quarterback Jon Grant -- among a roster made up mostly of German players, the Adler could compete with a mid-level Division I team.
American football will never come close to challenging soccer's dominance in Europe. But the Adler and their fans, along with others across the continent, make up a thriving subculture that has embraced the American game. In Germany alone there are hundreds of teams, thousands of players and tens of thousands of fans who closely follow the German Football League. To some, these numbers -- minuscule compared to soccer -- represent the future of the sport. For the NFL, winning over Europe and turning football into a truly global game has been a tantalizing but elusive prospect.
NFL Europa's 2007 closing left a football void across Europe that teams such as the Adler -- who for years played in the shadow of Berlin's NFL-backed franchise -- are attempting to fill. Across the continent, amateur and professional club teams provide the only opportunity most European football fans have to see the game played live and at a reasonably high level.
Germany, which fielded five teams during NFL Europa's final years, has more than 300 club teams playing in professional and amateur leagues under the governance of the American Football Verband Deutschland, or German Football Federation. The country's best teams play in the GFL, the 30-year old equivalent of German soccer's Bundesliga. As in European soccer, at the end of each season the worst teams in the GFL are relegated to the second division, while the best teams in the second division move up to the top flight. The process is repeated with teams at the top of the third division and the bottom of the second division.
Predictably, play drops off dramatically from flight to flight. Torrance Brown, a running back with the first-division Weinheim Longhorns, who started his career in Germany's third division while serving in the U.S. military, says he had 3,000 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns in just nine games in his first third-division season. (It's impossible to verify those numbers, as third-division statistics are poorly kept. But anecdotally it seems such numbers are common for Americans in Europe's lower divisions.)
Unlike NFL Europa, which as a developmental league for the NFL did not limit the number of Americans on each team, the GFL has strict rules concerning the use of U.S. players. Only two Americans can be on the field at one time -- on offense those are usually the quarterback and a running back or receiver; on defense Americans tend to play linebacker or defensive back.
In the GFL, U.S. players are paid for playing in 12 league games, plus two games in a Europe-wide competition.They're also provided with a car, accommodations, meals and health insurance for the season. The cash is not enough live on -- as little as 100 euros per month (around $146 dollars) in some cases -- so the majority of U.S. players in Germany and elsewhere in Europe return to the States after the season to pursue other playing opportunities or to work outside of football.
"We leave our homes and essentially our lives for nearly half a year," says Stephen Stokes, a running back from the Los Angeles area who plays in Finland. "Realistically I'm trying to play in North America, but I'm stuck in a trap where I could stay home and wait for something to happen or come to Europe and be active. You try to wait as long as possible to see if anything comes up, but you don't want to pass on a contact in Europe."
Head coaches, many of whom are American, are usually full-time employees, but most of the rest of the staff is part-time or volunteer. Some players and coaches come to Europe through connections with friends or contacts who are playing overseas. Others arrive via Europlayers.com. Players post their profiles to the site, which are reviewed by agents and coaches in Europe. If there is interest, the team reaches out. Some players and coaches say that within days of posting, they were on flights overseas with a contract and guaranteed salary -- albeit a small one.
"It's amazing how many people don't know about the opportunities to play football overseas. Europlayers has shown many players and coaches that there is more out there than small amateur leagues in the United States and Canada." says the founder of Europlayers.com
European players have a much different experience from their American teammates. Most make no money -- in fact, some teams charge dues to Europeans to be part of the club. Most Europeans join their local club as teenagers and, as in soccer, are signed to developmental squads if they show potential.
"There are European guys on my team with jobs outside of football and families," says Chris Calaycay, a Hawaii native who coaches the Vienna Vikings in Austria. "Football is something they do in their spare time. This is as amateur as you can get."
Each season ends with individual countries' versions of the Super Bowl. There is also a knockout tournament, similar to soccer's Champions League, sponsored by the European Federation of American Football in which top teams from each country play to reach the Eurobowl and be crowned European champions.
Federations around the world are governed by the International Federation of American Football. Formed in 1998 with eight members, IFAF now oversees nearly 60 federations. It stages the IFAF World Cup every four years for mens' national teams, as well as championships for junior teams. (The U.S. participated in the World Cup for the first time in 2007 and won the tournament, with a roster of recent collegians who had not signed a pro contract.)
"We are like any other sports federation, like FIBA or FIFA," says IFAF president Tommy Wikings, referring to the governing bodies of basketball and soccer. "Our responsibilities are anything related to football worldwide."
Without the financial and marketing muscle of the NFL, attendance at American football games in Europe has suffered. In 2007 nearly 50,000 attended the last World Bowl, the NFL Europa championship game, in Frankfurt. Last year, in contrast, just 16,000 were in the stands for the German Bowl, widely considered Europe's most popular football event.
A week after the 2007 World Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that NFL Europa -- which was losing a reported $30 million per year -- would close. Soon afterward Goodell unveiled a new strategy to grow the game abroad, focused on the United Kingdom: The NFL would stage regular-season games annually at Wembley Stadium in London; Goodell recently said there was a realistic possibility of an NFL franchise in the U.K. within the next 10 years.
"Twenty years ago, when the league started to look at Europe, we thought we would build through grass roots, through NFL Europa and through getting local communities to be passionate about the sport," says NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood. "The problem was that technology and the way people consumed the game changed. Now we have a top-down strategy. We put the best of our sport on display, increase television distribution and work with amateur federations to get more people to play."
Kirkwood acknowledged that football is more popular on the European mainland than it is in the U.K. but says the latter is a more attractive market for the NFL. "Our TV ratings [in the U.K.] are up 45 percent from last year," he says. "We're creating a level of sharp focus, not spreading ourselves thin across a number of countries."
Some longtime coaches in Europe, many of whom have NFL Europa experience, are uneasy about the NFL's new direction. They acknowledge that NFL Europa's finances were a disaster but said the investment paid off in the talent the league returned to the NFL. Two of the stars of Super Bowl XLIII, Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, spent time in the European league.
"Financially it probably would have never been self-sufficient," says Chris Winter, an American who coaches the Zurich Renegades in Switzerland. "But some of the losses are made back to the NFL when people are paying to see Harrison or Warner play."
NFL Europa's closing also eliminated one of the few options European players had for playing high-level football. While the league was dominated by Americans, it provided European players with something to aspire to. "NFL Europa was at its prime when it shut down," says Winter, who has been playing and coaching in Europe since 1997. "It gave athletes here a legitimate goal to shoot for and showed how to play the game at a high level."
In many ways NFL Europa compares with Major League Soccer in the U.S. Both attempted to sell a traditionally foreign sport to a reluctant and oversaturated domestic audience. Like NFL Europa, which began in 1991 as the World League of American Football, MLS has consistently lost money since it began play in 1996. But the league has succeeded in raising the profile of soccer in America; teams have loyal fan bases, the level of play has risen over the years and many franchises have built or are planning their own soccer stadiums. MLS also plays a role in developing players for the U.S. national team and has been a valuable stepping stone for Americans to move to more competitive leagues overseas. MLS and its franchise owners have traded short-term profitability for a long-term vision based on a belief in the product.
After 17 years, the NFL was unwilling to make a similar financial trade-off. "The conflict we had since the beginning was player development," says Phil Hickey, who helped run NFL Europa's Berlin franchise. "New York [where NFL Europa's headquarters are located] wanted to use the league to develop American players. We wanted to develop Americans players as well, but we also wanted to bring along Europeans. It was tough bringing over 45 new American faces every year and selling them to Europeans."
Despite these challenges,"all of our markets were growing every year," Hickey maintains. "We were close to turning a corner."
For most American players in Europe, arguments over the closing of NFL Europa are academic -- they're happy to be playing football and getting paid to do it. Most are in their 20s and played at smaller Division I programs or in Division II or III. A few came directly from high school. Almost none of them played in NFL Europa.
At the Adler's practice facility at Stade Napoleon, a former French military base on the outskirts of Berlin, Patrick O'Neal, David McCants and Jon Grant were preparing for the German Bowl. The three are highly representative of American football players in Europe: Each is from a small town, played at a small college and hardly ever dreamed of visiting Europe, let alone playing professional football there.
"I thought I'd sign somewhere as a free agent in the NFL, but that didn't happen," says the 26-year-old Grant, who played quarterback at UC Davis. "I got into camp in Canada and didn't make that squad. I tried out for the Arena league and ended up playing in Arena 2." He found out about opportunities abroad through Europlayers and played in Finland before joining the Adler this season.
Grant, who returns to California to work in the off-season, said he has no plans to attempt to play in North America again. Nor does he have any illusions about football's place in Europe's sports culture. "Soccer is king here," he says. "Football is a niche sports. But to our fans it's a pretty big deal."
Grant enjoys what he calls the "rugby culture" in Germany: "You win by 40 points and you party on the way home. You lose by 40 points and you party on the way home. It's completely different than even Arena 2."
Grant and McCants, the running back, are largely responsible for Berlin's success this season, with the tandem producing the majority of the Adler's offense. A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., McCants, 22, played college ball at North Alabama. He was initially surprised at the level of play here.
"I was expecting them not to be good, but I saw quickly in practice that there are a couple of athletes out here," McCants says. He plans to return to America during the European off-season to prepare for tryouts with an NFL or CFL team. For now, though, he is focused on the German Bowl.
"I'm expecting it to be big," he says. "Everyone else on the teams says it's a big thing over here, a mini NFL championship."
O'Neal, 23, grew up in Gainesville, Fla., and played at Union College in Kentucky. He found out about an opening with the Adler though a network of friends and coaches, and signed as a linebacker just before the season began in May. He says he has no expectations to play in North America. Instead, he's making the most of his time abroad.
"How many people can say they've been to Europe? No one where I come from," he says. "When I got here I played in Paris. How many people can say they played football in Paris?"