What began auspiciously long ago ended in profound disappointment recently when the NFL decided to
close its six-team European circuit.
After a 16-year experiment, commissioner
Roger Goodell and NFL team owners shuttered NFL Europa (NFL Europe in past seasons) and along with it the hopes of globalizing
American football in a big-time manner for the foreseeable future.
decision was pawned off on the NFL's intent to begin playing regular-season games outside North America and the fact that
the NFLE was continuing to lose money — reportedly to the tune of around $ 30 million a year.
"A foundation of American football fans in key European markets has been created and the time
is right to shift our strategy," Goodell said in a statement, while noting the decision was strictly a business one.
The NFLE — or what was left of it — began as the World League of
American Football in 1991 with 10 teams in five countries. Franchises were based in London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Montreal,
New York, Orlando, San Antonio, Sacramento, Birmingham, Ala., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
I was fortunate to have been involved at the outset of the WLAF as the director of public relations for the
London Monarchs, the league's flagship franchise, where I worked for the first two seasons.
Those were exciting times, as there was great optimism that interest in the sport was sustainable
on some level in international markets over the long term.
went 11-1 that first season and won the inaugural World Bowl before a crowd of more than 61,000 at Wembley Stadium, where
the team averaged more than 40,000 fans per game. On the surface it seemed as if it was the start of something big, but almost
from the moment the final gun sounded on the first title game, the league's troubles began.
|Noriaki Kinoshita, seen here playing for the Amsterdam
Admirals this season, was invited to training camp by the Atlanta Falcons after gaining exposure in NFL Europa, which folded
June 29 after 16 years. KYODO PHOTO
NFL team owners, always a curious bunch, began hedging their bets on the WLAF over money concerns.
It would seem logical to deduce that starting a pro football league in five countries, with players
primarily from one (the United States), would take time and patience, as well as a significant investment.
Each NFL team was asked to contribute $ 500,000 annually — a drop in the bucket even in those
days — toward the development of the WLAF. With this money, plus television contracts with both ABC and the USA Network,
the league appeared to be starting off on the right foot.
the NFL team owners, apparently lacking any understanding of the economics of starting a new business, began to complain loud
and long about the losses the league had incurred in its first season and tried to shut it down.
Guys like Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who once famously proclaimed, "I go to bed
thinking about making money and I wake up thinking about making money," clearly cared nothing about developing the NFL
In fact, after that first season, when rumors surfaced
that the WLAF might be shut down, Jones was quoted as saying, " . . . they were looking for a way to make the murder
So, you see, this league was doomed from the
I have often asked myself, "Why start a new endeavor
like this and then give it lukewarm support and a halfhearted effort?"
is a question that remains unanswered to this day.
The biggest problem
was that WLAF and later NFLE never had a clear mission.
goal to try to grow the game overseas?
Or develop players for the
Or make money while doing both?
The league played the 1992 season and then was "suspended" for two years, before returning
in 1995 with a six-team, all-European team format, which it retained through this year.
But it was never the same. The European fans are sophisticated, and taking something away, then bringing it
back and trying to insist it was better was a bad idea.
where soccer was going through a down period when the WLAF started, a little thing called the Premier League began in August
of 1992, and commenced a climb that would make it the most popular pro sports league in the world.
At the same time, American football became an afterthought in the UK and Europe. When the league
returned, attendance dwindled, teams moved and at the end five of the six teams were in Germany.
The sad part of this whole scenario is that in countries like Japan, which has seen 32 players participate
in the NFLE since 1996, including the likes of Masafumi Kawaguchi, Masato Itai, Nachi Abe and Noriaki Kinoshita, the path
to playing the game at the highest level is now severely obstructed.
who was invited to training camp by the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday after being named to the All-NFLE team two straight years
as a special teams player, is a case in point. He is getting his shot to become the first Japanese to play in the NFL because
of the exposure he received while playing for the Amsterdam Admirals.
this point on it is going to be very difficult for a Japanese player to go from a tryout camp straight into an NFL training
camp and on to a team roster. With the NFLE there was the chance that a player could develop with game experience —
like Kinoshita did — against guys who were already in the NFL and someday have a chance to make it all the way.
"It is disappointing that the NFL Europa folded before the essence of American
football, one of the greatest sports of the world, is understood in Europe," said Kawaguchi, who played seven seasons
for the Admirals, when contacted about the move. "The NFL Europa was one of the gateways for Japanese football players
advancing to the NFL."
The NFLE, had it been organized and
run with proper commitment from the start, could have served two purposes — to provide fans in international markets
with their own teams, and develop talent from those countries who could play at home and maybe some day in the NFL.
While the NFL won't be a part of realizing this vision, my feeling is that within
a year or two another group will try to bring American pro football to some major markets in Europe.
Next time around it is imperative that the ownership be local, the goal be clear, and the message
not be convoluted. Those involved should love the game first, and have deep enough pockets to worry about the bottom line
a distant second.
The passing of NFL Europa shouldn't be taken lightly
|NFL Network |
The news blurb passed quickly. After a 15-year
run, the NFL finally pulled the plug on its spring developmental league in Europe, NFL Europa.
had been rumored for years, but somehow the negotiating prowess of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue would always intercede
and save the league.
No such luck this year. Most football fans read the blurb, shrugged
their shoulders and said, "Too bad." Most didn't even register a hint of emotion.
is, unless you were somehow affiliated with the league, possibly one of the 226 alumni of the league who played in the NFL
in 2006. There was a deep sense of loss if you were one of the 110 NFL referees that have officiated games in NFL Europa over
the past decade and a half.
|John Gichigi/Allsport / Getty Images
Johnson calls signals as a member of the London Monarchs in 1995.
Eulogies were exchanged via the phone lines and the Internet if you were one of dozens of FOX announcers or
production people who honed their craft in the little football league in Europe.
success stories of NFL Europa will never die. Kurt Warner and his
accomplishments are forever part of the league's folklore. Jake Delhomme
and Brad Johnson are other popular examples of what this league
could produce that NFL teams struggled to provide.
But after covering this spring developmental
league for the past 11 years, I have a few more shining examples, stories you may not have followed.
Waters from the Kansas City Chiefs
went to play for the Berlin Thunder in 2001 as an unheralded center, a position he never played before. A fullback and linebacker
for North Texas State, he signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.
Carl Petersen saw some athletic ability and high character in Waters and signed him and sent him to Europe. Waters started
10 games that spring at center and got a feel for the offensive line. He showed up at practice every day with a thousand-watt
smile and worked his butt off.
Waters went back to Kansas City with more confidence than
ever, earned a spot on the team and went on to become a Pro Bowl guard.
LaRoi Glover was
a fifth-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1996 from San
Diego State. He was measured at just under the 6-foot barrier and barely 280 pounds. The Raiders released him, saying he was
too small. The New Orleans Saints picked him up off the scrap heap
and allocated him to the World League of American football in 1997.
I first encountered
Glover as a member of the Barcelona Dragons in a small seaside hotel in Sitges, Spain. His look was workmanlike, steadfast,
focused. In fact when he spoke, it had none of the relaxation of his Mediterranean surroundings. He was downright serious.
After several Pro Bowl appearances over the last decade, his appearance and approach is just as serious. That "too short"
label didn't hold him back.
Then there was my visit to the film room of the London Monarchs
in the spring of 1998. In the middle of the dark, dank, leaky, mildewed, cold room sat a cranky projector on a card table
with an operator that was just as cranky.
Coach Jim Tomsula's defensive line had had a
bad practice, and he was ripping them apart in between spits to his spittoon. Out of the side of his mouth, in his unmistaken
Pittsburgh accent, came the knurled question, "Whaddya think about Big Brit?"
"Big Brit" Tovo was a 6-foot-5, 310-pound, 20-year-old English kid, raw on football experience, trying to have a
go at America's game. He was Tomsula's project that spring, and the coach was determined to take the 25-stone stud with a
quick twitch and turn him into a serviceable defensive tackle.
After coaching stops that
dotted NFL Europa and eventually included a head coaching stop in Dusseldorf with the Rhein Fire, Tomsula is still in a film
room and spitting into a spittoon and developing projects, now for Mike Nolan as the defensive line coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Then there is referee
Scott Green, one of only 17 referees in the NFL. Green was a back judge for years in the NFL, but director of NFL officiating
Mike Perreira had targeted him as a potential referee, so Green came to the little spring league and worked as a referee for
five years. He gained experience and learned how to handle the difficult position and how to coach a crew. Today he is one
of the most respected officials in the NFL.
These are just a few examples of the benefits
of NFLE that I have witnessed. I could list another 100 before I would have to even think.
is a different sport than others. Nothing can replace the skills learned from playing in real games. Minicamps and OTAs will
never develop a player. Every coach holds his breath when the spring workout warriors march onto the field for the first time
come fall. Coaches never know what a player can do until there is live action. NFL Europa was that live action.
I believe the owners made a very short-sighted decision to terminate NFL Europa. They need the league now
more than ever. First of all, when a player is sent to Europe, it is a sign his NFL career is in jeopardy, if not in the crypt.
So when those players survive and go back to the NFL, they are less inclined to expect entitlements. They know they can be
sent back to the scrapheap at any moment, and that is how they approach their job every day.
would bet that of the 226 NFL Europa veterans in the NFL last year nary a one has appeared on a police blotter since returning
The second reason this league should continue is player development. The lifeblood
of any successful team is its ability to continue to train and develop young players. The salary cap demands that.
Many leagues have risen, but few have survived. When leagues fail or go under, it's usually not a shock. Empty
seats and bouncing checks go hand in hand. But that was not the case with NFL Europa, as World Bowl XV on June 2 in Frankfurt,
Germany, had more than 48,000 fans in attendance.
They showed up in their Frankfurt Galaxy
hats and shirts, accompanied with whistles and drums and ready to celebrate a championship game.
game, won by a large underdog in the Hamburg Sea Devils, was played at an exceptional level. Both offenses went up and down
the field, the crisp play the result of excellent coaching and concentration. The crowd, savvy after years of watching closely,
applauded both teams' efforts.
The conclusion is that fans show up, players, coaches, and
officials develop, and the popularity is on the rise. There is nothing not to like. The NFL owners forced NFL Commissioner
Roger Goodell to pull the plug, because all they paid attention to was the bottom line: Too costly!
say hogwash. It was the best investment they ever made, and now that it's gone, they will see the results. Where will players
and others go to realize the American dream of playing in the NFL?
Sadly it won't be in