The NFL may be known as America’s game, but it is enjoyed worldwide. Dive deeper into the growing popularity of the NFL in Europe, especially in Germany.
Last Updated: 17/10/23 at 17:30
While the name of the game is American football, the NFL is not limited to American fans and is enjoyed by people worldwide.
History has shown that the game is popular in many countries, especially those in Europe.
In this blog post, we'll conduct an in-depth exploration of the NFL's global popularity, its history in Europe, particularly in Germany, and the successful strategies it has employed to expand its audience.Buy NFL Germany hospitality
The Introduction of the NFL International Series in Europe
The interest in the NFL isn’t something new. Technological advancements have led to more people recognising, learning, understanding, and enjoying the game. But to say it has only gained popularity since the 2000s is simply not the case.
American football was popular in some countries outside of the Americas before the advent of social media and the internet, which have made it easier to keep up with the NFL - the top league in the world.
The United Kingdom, Germany and Spain are just three examples of countries that have had a large following for many years now.
The popularity in the United Kingdom should be no surprise - the NFL has been coming to London for the NFL International series since 2007.
In 2016, the NFL expanded to include a game in Mexico City. Now, it's continuing its expansion efforts, with one game played at the Allianz Arena in Munich in 2022 and two games scheduled in Frankfurt this year.
But the history of the NFL in Europe goes even further back than 2007.
The World League of American Football in Europe: A Brief History
The NFL’s first effort to expand the game to an international market was in 1989 when the league set up the World League of American Football (WLAF).
Conceived by the then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, the WLAF was set to be a spring developmental league for the NFL.
The series aimed to expand international interest in American football and served as a stepping stone for future NFL hopefuls, hence its developmental aspect.
There were six American teams, one Canadian team, and three European teams; the London Monarchs, Barcelona Dragons and Frankfurt Galaxy.
In 1991, parties in Moscow and Japan expressed interest in joining the league.
The popularity of the league was not there in the US, but they were never the intended target. In Barcelona, London, Frankfurt and Montreal, the spectator numbers surpassed early expectations.
Unfortunately, the league only lasted two seasons in 1991 and 1992, before being suspended for two years.
While the interest in Europe was there, it simply wasn’t sustainable financially for the American teams, especially since the popularity in Europe showed it could end up actually being a rival to the NFL, so they decided to pull out.
NFL Europe Rebrand
In 1995, the league emerged once again, this time exclusively based in Europe, featuring just six teams, with NFL teams still maintaining stakes in the three previously affiliated teams.
The existing teams in London, Barcelona and Frankfurt were joined by the Amsterdam Admirals, Rhein Fire (Dusseldorf), and Scottish Claymores (Edinburgh).
But again, the interest was waning for most countries (except Germany, who seemed to continually love it).
The London Monarchs had an average attendance of 10,000 in 1995-97. They then changed to be the England Monarchs in 1998 and would play their home games in London, Bristol and Birmingham.
Also in 1998, the league was renamed to NFL Europe. The league was beset with instability, and attendance dropped to an average of 5,944. This caused the Monarchs to pull out at the end of the ‘98 season and were replaced by the Berlin Thunder.
For the 2004 season, the Barcelona Dragons - having struggled with financial issues and receiving very little fan support - were replaced by the Cologne Centurions, another German team.
The Scottish Claymores were replaced in 2004 by the Hamburg Sea Devils, reducing the league to five German teams and the Amsterdam Admirals from the Netherlands.
In 2006, the league was rebranded to NFL Europa to reflect the name of Europe in most European languages, including Dutch and German.
But the league wasn’t long for the world, as the NFL announced it would be disbanded in 2007.
The attendance numbers were there in Germany, where in the 2005 season, there was an average attendance number of 18,965 - the highest it had been since 1992.
Even up until the end, the last World Bowl, held one week before the league was disbanded, had an attendance of 48,125.
The History of the “American Bowl”
The NFL used to hold pre-season exhibition games, labelled the “American Bowl” - this was the NFL’s first attempt to promote American football in other countries.
It worked the same way as the International Series works now - two NFL teams are sent over to the location to play. The only difference is the American Bowl was in the pre-season, while the International Series is part of the regular season.
The American Bowl was competed between 1986 to 2005. It started in London at Wembley Stadium. After the first three years proved to be a success, they took it worldwide.
Japan was next. In 1989, two games were played on the 6th of August, one in London and the other in Tokyo.
In 1990, it grew to Canada and Germany. Then, in 1993, Spain got involved. Mexico was next in 1994. All of which proved there was a fanbase there in each country.
Interestingly, the NFL hosted single games in Dublin, Ireland in 1997 and Sydney, Australia in 1999. Although these locations may appear unusual for NFL games, there were specific reasons behind these choices, which we'll explore as you read further.
Regarding the American Bowl, the number of games declined significantly starting in 1998. In 1998, three games were played, which was reduced to two in 2000. After that, there was only one game each year, except for 2004 when no game was played.
They had stopped coming to the UK since 1993, and the final years from 2000 saw the NFL only visit Japan and Mexico.
Admittedly, there was a drop-off in popularity around the turn of the millennium. However, it wasn't a complete lack of global interest. In 2007, the NFL made a comeback in London, this time introducing the UK to regular season football's competitive nature with the inaugural International Series game.
NFL popularity in Europe now
Today, the International Series has expanded to include three games in London (though it was four for a period), one in Mexico City, Mexico, and as of 2023, two games in Germany.
The London-based football team, Tottenham Hotspur, has constructed a multi-purpose stadium with a unique feature: the playing field can divide and retract, revealing a synthetic turf field used for NFL London Games.
This implementation of Spurs’ home stadium shows the intention to keep American football coming back, and maybe even a potential home for a team in London in the future.
While it may sound impractical, there have been credible discussions in the past. For example, Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC owner Shahid Khan once expressed interest in purchasing Wembley Stadium as part of his efforts to bring the Jaguars to England.
The interest extends beyond the UK. As mentioned earlier, Germany has shown a strong affection for American football, so it's somewhat surprising that the International Series is only now being introduced there last year.
The Rise of American Football in Germany: Exploring the NFL's Impact
American football's popularity in Germany has surged in recent years, captivating German fans and fueling a growing passion for the game.
In an article on Huddle Up, writer Joe Pompliano suggests that Germany's love for American football can be traced back to the 1970s when American soldiers stationed in the country frequently played the game. This inspired local children to imitate them, igniting early interest in the sport.
However, it wasn't until 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the NFL made a significant move by hosting a preseason game in West Berlin between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams.
This game became a significant turning point for American football in Germany. Around 55,000 fans attended the event, even though many of them didn't fully understand the rules of the game.
However, they were attracted to the "Americana aspects" such as tailgating, cheerleaders, and frisbee-chasing dogs. The success of this game, according to Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, further fueled interest and served as a catalyst for the sport's growth in Germany.
In the following years, American football's popularity kept rising. When the NFL Europe league folded in 2007, Germany boasted five or six teams, with the Frankfurt Galaxy leading the pack. Tens of thousands of fans regularly attended their games, highlighting the sport's growing enthusiasm in the country.
Germany now boasts Europe's largest NFL fan base, highlighting the sport's remarkable success. A survey ranked American football second in popularity in Germany, right after its inaugural regular season game.
The Success of Germany's First-ever Regular-season Game
In 2022, Germany hosted its first-ever regular-season game at the Allianz Arena in Munich, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the Seattle Seahawks, with the Buccaneers winning 21-16.
The international game was a resounding success, making a significant economic and social impact.
The NFL reported that a study conducted by The Sports Consultancy Group confirmed that it generated approximately $77.5 million and 32.2 million euros in direct spending.
Dr. Alexander Steinforth, GM NFL Germany, stated, "The Munich game was a significant moment for the NFL in Germany and one that will live in the minds of those in the stadium and those who watched the game from around the world for many years to come.”
He continued: "The economic and social impact generated from our first regular season game is impressive and underlines the positive contribution the game had on the City of Munich and beyond, and we look ahead to playing future games in the country in the coming years."
Upcoming NFL Fixtures in Germany
As part of their ongoing expansion, the NFL will host two games in Germany in 2023. On November 5th, the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Miami Dolphins, and on November 12th, the New England Patriots will play the Indianapolis Colts. Both games will take place at Frankfurt am Main's Deutsche Bank Park.
These fixtures demonstrate the NFL's commitment to nurturing and growing their fanbase in Germany. The decision to hold multiple games in the country further solidifies the popularity of the NFL among German football enthusiasts.Buy Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins hospitalityBuy New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts hospitality
The Future of the NFL in Germany
With the success of the NFL games in Germany and the increasing interest in American football, the future of the NFL in Germany looks promising. The league's continued efforts to engage German fans and provide live games demonstrate a long-term commitment to the country.
As the popularity of the NFL continues to rise in Germany, it opens up opportunities for potential development and expansion, such as the establishment of a dedicated NFL team or the introduction of additional league fixtures.
The Possible Future of the NFL in Europe
In 2018, the NFL did something new to find talents from around the world, by hosting something they called the International Combine.
The Combine in the US is an event where the top prospects from around America go and showcase their talent in a training camp-style event in front of scouts from every team.
2018 saw the NFL do this but internationally to find more foreign talents, starting in Australia. In 2019, they did it again but in Germany this time, and last year they came to England for it.
The NFL Europa League has been somewhat revived in recent years, too. In 2020, the European League of Football was formed, and they kicked off for the first time in 2021.
Currently, there are 12 teams from Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain and Turkey that compete in the league, and there are teams already announced for the future in Switzerland, Italy and Hungary. Ultimately, there are plans to eventually expand to at least 20 teams.
With the history of failed American football leagues in Germany and Europe, there was skepticism.
But the commissioner of the league believes this one will work as there is a popularity boom in Germany right now, and acting on it with the introduction of the league, it should only help expand the boom.
The league has also partnered with the Brazilian Football Federation (Brasil Futebol Americano), and that will bring more opportunities for players, coaches, and officials from either league to partake in an exchange to get experience in both setups.
The possibilities that could come from this league are endless, and the opportunities it provides for young players from Europe, as well as players from the US who maybe didn’t cut it in the NFL, will prove to be excellent.
With the NFL International Combine, there is a major possibility that more international players will be showing up in the NFL in the future.
Overall, the rise of American football in Europe can be attributed to a combination of cultural influences, the accessibility of the sport, the impact of the NFL's presence, and the efforts made to develop international games.
This growing enthusiasm and passionate fan base make Germany a key market for the NFL and an integral part of the sport's global expansion.