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Europass: Reports of NFLE's closing badly timed  
Mike Carlson  By Mike Carlson
Special to NFL.com

(June 19, 2007) -- Timing, as they say, is everything, and if so, NFL Europa's sense of timing always seems to be off.

The league has just concluded a season which set an all-time attendance record, (more than 20,000 fans per game). Berlin drew a team-record 30,657 for their home opener, though the Thunder couldn't match it again during the season (going 0-5 at home didn't help). Hamburg broke its attendance record twice, the second time cracking the 30,000 mark for a crucial Week 9 matchup with Frankfurt. Four of the league's six teams drew at least one crowd over 30,000, a sign the league's German strategy might have some legs.

The Frankfurt Galaxy can expect their usual excellent crowd support during World Bowl XV.  
The Frankfurt Galaxy can expect their usual excellent crowd support during World Bowl XV.    
And on June 23, World Bowl XV is expected to draw the biggest crowd since more than 50,000 came to World Bowl X in Düsseldorf.

Yet all the gossip around the league seems to focus on the idea the NFL will drop its commitment to a European league in the interests of saving money. If that were to be true, the timing could not be worse.

The best argument against such a move at this time is the burgeoning success of the Giants-Dolphins game scheduled for Oct. 28 at London's Wembley Stadium. That the game will be a sell-out is not in question, and really the only question remaining is "where do we go next?" Germany, which had a number of cities in the final running for the 2007 overseas game, has to be the obvious choice, a decision that will be made easier by a big crowd four days from now in Frankfurt's Commerzbank Arena.

Frankfurt has a tradition of supporting the Galaxy, and American football, that goes back to 1991. Rhein was built into a box-office success with hard work by a fantastic local front office in Düsseldorf; they suffered a setback when stadium construction forced them out of Düsseldorf for two years, but their crowds have remained solid, even without much success on the field. Hamburg had one of the country's best-supported amateur teams, and this year, with a winning team, the crowds have grown. Berlin's promotions for its opening game proved there is an audience there to be reached.

But were the NFL to abandon the European league, the effect might be similar to the 1992 close-down of the World League of American Football.

In Britain, when the Monarchs returned, the bloom was off the rose, and though the 1995 Monarchs -- playing on a 90-yard field in a soccer club stadium -- still drew about 14,000 per game, more than any two rugby teams in London, they were perceived as a failure. The Scottish Claymores, born in 1995, worked hard -- especially under Steve Livingstone in their last years -- to establish local connections in Glasgow that might build a future fan base, but the lesson learned there was that it was a long-haul project, not one that would net quick rewards.

Frankfurt fans rebounded when the Galaxy returned in 1995. They might well flock to a real NFL game even if NFL Europa were to shut down. But from reading reports from the States, you would think there were three old Germans and their dog watching the Galaxy games, and that the product on the field was awful, and that no one cares in America anyway. That perspective seems somewhat skewed.

Almost everyone agrees that a developmental league is a good idea, though many point out such a league could be run far more cheaply in the States, in the Florida sites that now serve as the league's training camp, or, more ambitiously, in non-NFL cities in the South, the Southwest, or even Mexico. The NCAA is the NFL's de facto minor league, but the strains of the salary cap and free agency make a Triple-A league more valuable than ever, if it is used right.

Chiefs president Carl Peterson made that point to the Boston Globe's Mike Reiss last weekend, reiterating the analysis he gave to Europass at World Bowl XIII. The cost per team, supposedly $1 million each on paper, is less if you figure teams keep only 60 percent of their profits anyway, and the players association, which gets the rest, has also seen the league as a good thing -- creating jobs for their players.

Bringing stars like these overseas for a regular-season game might be the best way to build a European following.  
Bringing stars like these overseas for a regular-season game might be the best way to build a European following.    
The Chiefs' success with the league reflects the computer adage, "garbage in, garbage out." The league can be valuable simply to reveal which players, on whom you might otherwise waste money, can be discarded before camp, but many teams don't even look that far ahead.

There are ways NFL Europa might be made more effective for development, but there will always be teams wary of the idea. The key question is not development, but whether the league still feels it worthwhile to lose money promoting itself in Europe.

American football will never boom as a participant sport in Europe, the way soccer has in the U.S. It requires rarer size and physical talent, and hand/eye skills that are secondary in most European countries' sports. It is cost intensive, coach intensive, referee intensive, equipment intensive, field intensive, and thus becomes a difficult sell.

Yet it has caught on, to a degree, in Germany, as it did in Britain during the first NFL boom, triggered by TV in the early 1980s. Germans have played in the NFL and at top colleges, and the game might well have a future there.

What NFL Europa provides is a continuing showcase for the sport in Europe. That it receives less and less attention in America is a function of the increased focus on all aspects of the NFL season modern media provide, and, paradoxically of NFLE's move to NFL Network, which means it's now seen by fewer casual viewers. It exists on a similar, subscription basis on German TV, which is difficult to change, but might be easier with the glitz of an NFL game in the fall to spark it.

The NFL has made a huge effort since 1995 to establish itself in Europe, something virtually unprecedented among the big four American sports. The consultants thought there was a television pot of gold out there a decade ago, which wasn't true, but the NFL stuck with it. They've changed direction a couple of times, but the German strategy has shown signs of paying off, and, with the prospect of an NFL game to bring some synergistic benefit to NFL Europa, now is not the time to be talking about a shutdown.

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