Fate of NFL Europe
Will NFL Europe survive? It's a developing situation
Monday, May 16, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What began as the World League of American Football begat NFL Europe and pretty much has become NFL Germany could soon turn into a continent without a league.
Although attendance for NFL Europe has risen 8 percent through the first five weeks of this season, the six-team spring football league continues to lose money for NFL owners, and what was supposed to be a developmental league has produced few good prospects in the past several years.
While the Euro may be gaining strength, NFL Europe could be on its deathbed.
Twenty-four of the 32 NFL owners this year must approve the continuation of an experiment that began in 1991 or this could be the end of commissioner Paul Tagliabue's bold bid to make football a global sport. The league barely earned a two-year extension in 2003 when eight owners voted against it, one short of killing NFL Europe, something that could happen the next vote. It's not on the agenda for the NFL's May meeting, so the vote likely will take place in October.
"I don't think anybody knows that until we go to a meeting," said Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, one of eight members of the league's working group on NFL Europe football operations. "Every year it goes down to a meeting and most of the time it comes down to one vote. Until we go in and hear the whole picture in a meeting, I don't think anybody can predict it."
The NFL Europe listed 262 former players on NFL rosters last season, and 27 of its former quarterbacks have started in the NFL. Five NFL Europe veterans made the Pro Bowl this year. Of those five, however, only Kansas City guard Brian Waters played in Europe in this century (Berlin, 2000) and the days of Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and Jay Fiedler coming through NFL Europe to make a splash in the NFL is but a fond memory.
Scouts and others in the NFL moan about the lack of good prospects in NFL Europe this season and say the primary benefit of sending their players across the Atlantic seems to be the roster exemptions they gain in training camp for doing so. Each NFL team must send at least three players on their 80-man roster to the spring league, but there is no limit.
The Steelers, for example, have 11 on NFL Europe rosters this spring and thus may bring 91 players to training camp as long as those 11 are among them. There's not a recognizable name in the bunch, although center Ben Claxton is playing well.
Parts of the problem are NFL teams and their coaches and the evolvement of the game here. Most teams refused to send any of their decent players to Europe because they want them working at home during minicamps, voluntary spring practices and meetings. The Steelers used to send their young quarterbacks to Europe, including Jim Miller, but no more.
"No question, that's a big part of it," Casserly said. "But there have been some young guys who developed. You're not going to develop starters."
The league that began with 10 teams and played in six countries (including the United States in 1991 and '92), has one team in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and five in Germany. Long gone are the London Monarchs, the Scottish Claymores and the Barcelona Dragons.
Putting most of the teams in Germany has boosted attendance because it is more popular there than in any other European country.
"It started with the Americans over there in the '50s, '60s and '70s," said John Beake, a former longtime Denver Broncos general manager who now works as a consultant for the league in NFL Europe.
"Back in those days, there was very good [armed] service football and it spilled down to their schools. In Europe, football's not played in schools. They play in clubs. But there's a very good American football league, the German Football League, with two divisions: junior for ages 15-19 and senior for 20 and up."
League-wide average attendance after five weeks stands at 17,224; the average attendance in 2004 was 15,925. Frankfurt leads with an average attendance of 27,477. But moving most of the teams to Germany limited one of the business objectives of NFL Europe -- to sell NFL merchandise throughout the continent.
There are no figures available on precisely how much the spring league drains from NFL owners' profits, but there are good reasons for it to continue. For one, while they barely made the minimum in their last vote, 24 owners did agree two years ago to keep it going through 2005. It provides the NFL Network and Direct TV with sports programming until Fox takes over for the last three weeks of the season and the World Bowl.
The attendance increase is the league's first since 2001, when it averaged 18,568 fans. And Tagliabue strongly believes in the league and the NFL having a presence in Europe.
The NFL also uses the league to develop officials and coaches, including a minority coaches' program for former NFL players.
"People feel very strongly about the positives in that area," Casserly said. "It's hard to break into coaching now. The colleges have so many restrictions. It's a chance to develop officials as a go-between college, Arena Football and the NFL."
Rumors have the NFL possibly moving the league to the United States, but that was tried when it began as the World League of American Football in 1991 and it did not work, causing the league to be put on hiatus for 1993 and 1994 before becoming all-Europe in 1995.
"Our audience was so sophisticated because we have the NFL and great college football," Beake said. "Spring football to [American fans] is not on their radar screen."
Whether the NFL's spring league remains on anyone's screens beyond this year is hard to say, but Beake believes there's a need for it. "I believe in it totally in my heart. I think it's needed now more than ever with youngsters coming out of college younger and finding it difficult to jump into the NFL. It gives them time to play more and mature."
Re: Fate of NFLE
Having a farm system like NFLE is a great idea, and many players have benefitted from the experience.. but on the flip side, there are countless others every year that go over there, and have a good season, but still cant make the cut to an NFL roster. It seems to be managed well, but I'd be all for having the league back over here. like a minor league system has for baseball and hockey.. tons of sports fans get into and support minor league teams, so why not the NFL ? More fan base and more opportunities for more NFL players and rookie FA's to get some experience.. instead of just a handful of them that get to go over every year from each time.. send as many as you want and let them learn!
Re: Fate of NFL Europe
I like the concept of the development league and I agree that it should come back to the States. I think smaller markets would embrace it as an NFL off-season distraction. The only drawback might be guys like Ben who weren't expected to have to play right away might get sent there for playing time and I'd much rather have a player stay and learn from the big boys in practice than playing against lesser competition.
Re: Fate of NFL Europe
Yeah it would take some adjustment and definately alot of work and money, but I'd sure hate to see the NFL go back to not having a developmental league like NFLE. Lets bring back the USFL ! :toofunny:
Re: Fate of NFL Europe
Yes I`m all for keeping it, even though I don`t watch a whole lot. Some of these players would have never made it without it.
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