Saturday, June 30, 2007

NFL Europa bids auf wiedersehen

Yesterday, the owners of the National Football League decided to shut down its sixteen-year-old European developmental league, NFL Europa.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was strictly business, insisting that after “significant investment” it was time to close NFL Europa and concentrate internationally on regular-season games outside the United States.
This is unfortunate, but I had a feeling that it was going to happen sooner or later; whatever benefits NFL Europa may have created in exposing foreign audiences to American football or providing valuable opportunities for young players to develop (Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner and Jack Delhomme being among those who got their start in that league), it was simply too much of a money drain for the NFL to stomach. As the article states, the league was losing about $30 million a season.

As a football junkie, I followed this league from its inception in the spring of 1991, when what was then known as the World League of American Football began operations with ten teams in five countries (I still remember those florescent lime green uniforms the Orlando Thunder wore!). The league was suspended after two seasons and returned as a six-team, all-European lineup in 1995. In 1997, the league was renamed NFL Europe. It was again renamed NFL Europa prior to the most recent season.

A couple of the franchises, such as the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Rhein Fire, were rather successful at developing strong local fan bases. Franchises outside of Germany were not as stable, however. The London Monarchs and the Barcelona Dragons were two of the league's most successful franchises, initially, but diminishing fan support caused those teams to eventually be relocated to Berlin and Cologne, respectively. At its end, five of the league's six teams were German.

Lori and I attended World Bowl X during our European trip in June 2002. It was an experience we'll never forget, as we found ourselves among 53 thousand screaming, singing German football (not soccer!) fans. I can honestly say that I've not encountered an atmosphere quite like that at any football game I've been to here in the United States - not even at football-rabid venues like Texas, Texas A&M or Oklahoma.

The NFL plans to continue generating international exposure for itself by playing regular-season games outside of the United States. This fall, for example, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants will play each other in London, and it's highly likely that game will be played in Germany starting in 2008. For the tens of thousands of German football fans that the NFL cultivated over the past sixteen years, however, watching Dallas play Oakland is probably not going to feel quite the same as watching Rhein play Frankfurt.

The WLAF/NFL Europe/NFL Europa played a total of fifteen seasons, which actually makes it one of the longer-lived professional football leagues. A list of its champions can be found here.

No comments: