In 2007, the NFL decided to end its 16-year experiment: NFL Europe (NFLE). Newly appointed commissioner, Roger Goodell, had placed a strong emphasis on increasing revenue across the league and could not stomach NLFE’s $30 million in annual losses. Despite the end of NFLE, the NFL sought to maintain its European footprint with the introduction of the International Series, which would feature at least one game played in London each season. The International Series has since grown substantially, proving a massive success despite the lackluster teams that are often featured in it.
While the NFL has seen success with its international games, and continues to dominate the domestic sports market, the sport’s international footprint remains miniscule in comparison to competitors like European football (or soccer) and basketball. Recognizing the success of the International Series and the NFL’s currently weaker international position, Goodell has in the last few years re-introduced the proposition of introducing NFL teams to Europe.
As the NFL just begins to consider re-entering Europe, playing catch-up with leagues like the NBA and NHL who have had a strong presence there for years, Goodell is faced with an Everest-like uphill climb. Faced with such a daunting task, Goodell must be wondering, What if the NFL had given NFL Europe a chance?
Setting the Stage
Rather than marking the end of NFLE, 2007 is remembered as the year the NFL truly embraced its international vision.
In 2007, Commissioner Goodell reviews the less-than-stellar financial statements for NFLE and considers the possibility of closing shop and ending NFLE for good. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, Goodell changes his mind. He recognizes that while NFLE is likely to take on losses early in its history, it represents an opportunity for long-term gains that would leave Goodell looking like a genius. He decides to accept the losses today with the knowledge that in the process, the NFL is staking its place in the European market.
This commitment from the NFL allows for NFLE to grow at its own pace. European fans have a chance to come to the game gradually, rather than having its complexities shoved down their throats once a year at Wembley Stadium. While losses were heavy early on, by 2013, NFLE franchises finally begin to show stability in terms of revenue, profitability, and perhaps most important, fan engagement and attendance. NFLE highlights make their way onto SportsCenter top 10’s and even domestic fans can’t help but recognize the game being played across the pond.
Finally, in 2017, rather than trying to determine how to expand the NFL to Europe as he is doing in reality today, Goodell is instead pondering his next move to bring the NFL to $25 Billion in total revenue: the NFL/NFLE Merger.
What Does a Successful NFL Europe Look Like?
From 2005 until the end of NFLE in 2007, the league was on life support. NFLE comprised of six teams, five of which came from Germany. Many issues plagued the league, but ultimately, the fact that the league was not serving as a true developmental league combined with the annual losses on their balance sheets was enough for owners to call it quits in Europe.
But was closing the league all together the only viable alternative?
Building NFL Europe
In an alternate reality, Goodell presents a cohesive international strategy in favor of the continued operation of NFLE. According to an ESPN report from 2007, it would cost each owner about $500,000 annually to continue operating NFLE; a drop in the bucket for people like Robert Kraft and Jim Irsay. He further points to the skyrocketing value of broadcasting rights agreements in the sports industry, pushing the potential value that another league might bring. Some owners appreciated Goodell’s plan, while others simply recognized the low-risk/high-reward nature of the investment. They vote unanimously to give NFL Europe seven years to reach some level of respectability.
With the support of owners behind, it, the NFL goes all-in on Europe. Organizations style themselves after European soccer teams, creating a familiar culture to improve fan engagement. The NFL ramps up its own presence in Europe, sending its best coaches and players overseas for a variety of football clinics and appearances. NFLE grows as both a development league for the NFL and a talented professional league in its own right. NFLE becomes the home for undrafted rookies hoping for a chance to prove themselves in a professional setting. Additionally, it is an ideal destination for veterans unable to find a team in the NFL but who are nonetheless capable of contributing on a professional level.
As the reputation of the league grows, so does the quality of coaches and players willing to join it, especially where hefty compensation is involved. Surely this would appeal to some high-profile head coaches, who might be looking for new challenges later in their careers. Who wouldn’t want to see Pete Carroll coaching the Amsterdam Admirals, fully embracing (and inhaling) his surroundings. Further, with the growth of social media in the last decade, and the need for as much content as possible, the NFL seeks to showcase the experience of players overseas, giving the league a chance to gain popularity not only in Europe, but globally. Think of how incredible a Hard Knocks season could be if featuring a known NFL coach trying to pull together a franchise in another continent. This would not only give fans access to one of the best personalities in the game, but it would actually showcase how one could thrive in NFLE, serving as a springboard for other high-profile players and coaches to make the move to Europe.
The influx of new talent, combined with NFLE teams switching to smaller, more affordable stadiums, and the ever-increasing value of broadcast rights agreements allows NFLE to start becoming profitable. Fans begin piling into stadiums, hoping to catch glimpses of the American stars they have only ever seen on TV or the Internet. NFLE then takes a similar path as Major League Soccer (MLS), and begins aggressively expanding over Europe. By 2015, the league has twelve teams spread across the continent. Most notably, some of those teams are actually pretty damn good.
As the buzz surrounding these teams grows, Goodell reveals his ultimate plan: an NFL/NFLE merger. Goodell’s plan would involve the addition of a four-team European division to the NFL. This division would be dubbed Europa.
Where Goodell wins everyone over is in his explanation of how this will work. He explains that the four top franchises from NFLE will make up the Europa division. The European teams will have similar schedules in that their home and road games will come in sets of four. They will each play four games at home, travel to North America (where they would have a “home base” of their own) for four games, and then repeat the process. In his infinite wisdom, commissioner Goodell even added additional bye weeks to allow for the players to be in optimal condition due to the long travel, something the NFLPA is more than happy to oblige.
In an effort to appeal to European fans, Goodell announced that the bottom two teams in the Europa division will be relegated each season back to NFLE, and replaced with the top two NFLE teams that season. This creates parity in both the NFL, as well as NFLE. NFL franchises will have to plan for entirely new opponents each year, leaving themselves vulnerable in certain areas. NFLE guarantees itself parity in that there will be a new champion crowned each season. Tanking in Europa just doesn’t happen and the game is better for it. Most importantly, the implementation of the relegation system only further helps European fans identify and familiarize with American football.
This system is not only a hit with owners and fans, but with players as well, an integral point in a sport ruled by a CBA. The NFLPA lauds the plan as one that will increase the number of NFL jobs available, improving the odds of newly professional rookies as well as aging veterans of finding a team and contributing in a professional setting.
The NFL and its executives are viewed not as greedy, unsympathetic cyborgs, but as collaborative, open-minded, and forward thinking.
Global Potential of American Football
Today, while American football is by far the most popular and successful sport in North America, it is really a big fish in a small pond as compared to more internationally acclaimed sports like soccer and basketball. There are a multitude of factors contributing to American football’s, and thus the NFL’s, slow international growth, including the need for expensive equipment, the large size of teams, and safety concerns. However, perhaps the greatest limitation on American football’s popularity is the fact that it is simply not played overseas, whether on a professional or amateur level. Many issues preventing the sport’s growth can be boiled down to this fact, including the lack of international players in the NFL and the hesitancy of European fans to embrace a sport they don’t play, much less understand. While the lack of American football in Europe is a legitimate obstacle to international growth, at the end of the day, the only way to solve it is to go out and change it. With the NFL’s recent push for a team in London, it is clear that Goodell has recognized this as well.
But if the NFL hadn’t quit on NFL Europe in 2007, how might their international presence look 10 years later, in 2017?
Having worked harder to establish the NFL shield in Europe, the NFL finds itself nearing the NBA in terms of its international appeal. Mirroring the NBA’s all-access social media style, the NFL capitalizes on the quirks and growing pains of its new league through masses of online content. Fans from every continent are able to follow and engage with NFLE and its players as they develop, deepening their connection to the game. It takes time, but the NFL is willing to invest in it. Unlike the International Series, the presence of local teams offers continuity, giving fans a team they can really get behind. Rather than having less than 20% of its visitors coming from outside the USA, NFL.com sees massive spikes in international visits, further increasing the value of their brand as well as brand partnerships.
NFLE serves as the gateway to international recognition. With the success of NFLE and its positive impact on the NFL itself, Goodell suddenly feels like China isn’t that far off. Neither is $25 Billion.
Ultimately, Goodell was unable to take the long-view approach. He saw the losses on his balance sheet and saw NFLE as a sinking ship. He thought that in order to get closer to his financial goals, any loss on paper was one worth cutting all together. Today, 10 years since ending NFLE, Goodell looks primed to give it another shot. Despite the many (legitimate) criticisms being raised across the sports world, an NFL team in Europe seems like a foregone conclusion. Whether or not it is ultimately successful, the NFL is faced with a seriously difficult task: trying to establish a loyal fan-base around a sport sparsely played on the continent. This endeavor would have been tough regardless, but perhaps Goodell is regretting that he forfeited a 10-year head start.
Photo courtesy of: Sports Illustrated