The NFL may be known as America’s game, but it is enjoyed worldwide. Keep reading to learn more about the growing popularity of the NFL in Europe.

Last Updated: 12/05/23 at 9:00 am

The NFL returns to UK soil for the 2023 NFL International Series, with three games being held later this year.

While the name of the game is American football, the NFL isn’t just a game that is exclusive to Americans and can only be enjoyed by Americans.

History has shown that the game is popular in many countries worldwide, especially in certain countries in Europe.

Today, we’re going to look at that popularity and where the NFL has been going right to bring the game to a global audience.

2023 NFL International Series Games

There are three games in total for the 2023 NFL International Series in London. The fixtures have now been announced and are as follows:

The Jacksonville Jaguars will be appearing in two fixtures this year for the first time in NFL International Series history.

Keep reading to find out how the NFL International series has started to regrow the popularity of the sport in the UK and in Europe.

The Introduction of the NFL International Series

The interest in the NFL isn’t something new. The advancement in technology has definitely led to more people recognising, learning, understanding and subsequently enjoying the game, but to say it has only become popular since the 2000’s is simply not the case.

American football was popular in some countries outside of the Americas long before social media, and the internet as a whole 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.

It expanded in 2016 to include a game in Mexico City, and it has now expanded once again to reach Germany, with one game being played at the Allianz Arena in Munich last year, and now two games set to be played this year.

But the history of the NFL in Europe goes even further back than 2007.

World League of American Football

The NFL’s first efforts to expand the game to an international market was in 1989, when the league set up the World League of American Football (WLAF).

The WLAF was the “brainchild” of the then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, and was set to be a spring developmental league to the NFL.

The series was seen as both a way to expand international interest in the game of American football, but it also acted as something of a stepping stone for future NFL hopefuls, hence the 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, anyway. 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/ NFL Europa

However, the league came in 1995, this time purely based in Europe and with a reduced field of just six teams. NFL teams still held stakes in the three teams that were previously part.

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 attendances 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 also discontinued and replaced in 2004 with the Hamburg Sea Devils, meaning the league now comprised five teams from Germany 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 “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, but after the first three years proved to be a success, they took it more 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 held one game in Dublin, Ireland in 1997 and one in Sydney, Australia in 1999. Both only held one game each, and while they may seem like very odd locations to visit for the NFL, keep reading on to see why it did make sense for them to try to reach those countries.

As for the American Bowl, it started to decline in the number of games put on from 1998. In ‘98 there were three games played, in 2000 there were two and then from 2000 onwards there was just the one each year (with the exception of 2004, where 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. But it was never a complete lack of popularity worldwide, and in 2007, the NFL returned to London, this time introducing the UK to the competitive nature of regular season football in the form of the first International Series game.

NFL popularity in Europe now

Nowadays, the International series has grown to include three games in London (for a few years it was four), and two games in Germany.

London-based football team Tottenham Hotspur built a new multi-purpose stadium that features a world-first feature where the playing field can divide and retract to reveal a synthetic turf field that is used for NFL London Games.

This implementation to 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.

That may sound impractical but it has had some very credible conversations before, with Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC owner Shahid Khan previously wanting to bring the Jags to England.

The interest isn’t just in the UK, though. As mentioned earlier, Germany seems to love their American football. It’s actually surprising that they have only just started bringing the International Series to them last year.

The 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 this 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 scepticism. But the commissioner of the league believes this one will work as there is a popularity boom in Germany right now, and by 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 is 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.

And with the NFL International Combine, there is a major possibility that more international players will be showing up in the NFL in the future.

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