This is Part 3 in Niner Noise’s series on my meeting with David Tossell, NFL Director of Public Affairs for the UK and Europe. In this section we will continue to explore some of the history of the NFL’s attempted European exploits, picking up with the founding of the World League of American Football, which developed long-time San Francisco 49ers‘ rival Kurt Warner in a market that liked the 49ers.
We left off in the last article with low attendance at preseason football games in the UK in the late eighties and early nineties. American Football had boomed in the UK thanks to a well-timed highlights show and soccer’s poor popularity. Coincidentally, it also led to a plethora of San Francisco 49ers fans across Great Britain, as Joe Montana and company proved attractive beyond borders. Where did this low popularity leave the NFL? Continue on to find out.
In 1991 the first season of the World League of American Football (WLAF) was played. Seven teams hailed from the United States or Canada—primarily from small-market areas—specifically New York/New Jersey, Orlando, Montreal, Raleigh-Durham, Birmingham, San Antonio, and Sacramento. Three were based in Europe: London, Barcelona and Frankfurt. The thought process behind the WLAF was that fans in Europe and small-market America ought to be given their own teams to cheer for. A few problems quickly showed themselves, however.
First and foremost, smart consumers again realized that low-quality football did not hold a finger to the NFL. Why would anyone want to watch the B-league? Secondly—and I would argue, more importantly, as fans across Europe love their second and third divisions of soccer—fans already had their allegiances. Just like Americans and Chinese are fans of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and so forth, so were Brits—Germans and Spaniards did not quite have the same level of exposure—fans of San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. The hooliganism era in soccer had also ended, and the common man once again began to enjoy the world’s sport. The interest simply was not there for low-level spring football. After just two seasons, the WLAF folded.
Before we continue, I must add that the WLAF had some intriguing rules:
1) Field goals gained value with distance
2) At least one non-US player had to play in at least every second series of downs
3) The two point conversion was implemented. (The NFL did not yet have it and essentially used the WLAF’s implementation of it as a trial run.)
The WLAF returned in 1995, but this time it was essentially a European league. The three
original European teams returned, along with Dusseldorf’s Rhein Fire, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh’s Scotland. Though most teams struggled to fill the stands—the London Monarchs resorted to giving away tickets—Mr. Tossell pointed out that the German franchises marketed their teams with a good amount of success—often getting 40,000-50,000 fans. Football became the “thing to do” before going out in the evening.
The WLAF eventually rebranded as the more familiar “NFL Europe” for the 1998 season. The NFL lost loads of money on it, but the owners considered this developmental league a worthy investment so long as players such as Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner appeared now and then. Owners’ minds eventually changed, however, as they kept prospects in the U.S.—where they could have better oversight of their training and development. The focus shifted to Germany in the hopes of a national German TV deal, but after a year as “NFL Europa,” The NFL disbanded the money-losing venture in 2007.
As the London—later England—Monarchs folded and England was left without a football team, Tossell and others saw the need to reinvest in the UK market. The UK pays more than any country, save the United States, for TV rights and despite the overwhelming popularity of soccer, rugby and cricket, the UK is filled with rabid sports fans who absolutely love the NFL—or would definitely follow it if ever they were exposed. The NFL UK office was set up and has done excellent work since. An example of this comes from one of the first things this office did: take exclusivity of the Super Bowl away from Sky Sports—aka the UK’s ESPN—and putting this game back on free-to-air TV. This allowed people who would not otherwise be exposed to football to have a chance to see it. Otherwise, the popularity of the game would never grow.
To find out more about some of the other work done in Europe since the end of NFL Europe, look for Part 4 of this series on the NFL in Europe.