American Football in France: The American Dream

American Football, along with baseball, hockey and basketball, are passions in North America. Basketball is doing very well in Europe as well. However, it has been more difficult for American football to stand out from its ancestor, “soccer”.

Where does France fit into the development of this sport which is still very unusual on the Old Continent, and how can it grow?

Over 70,000 spectators were in the stands at University of Phoenix Stadium and a billion viewers around the world were watching on Sunday, February 1st as the year’s largest American sporting event, the Super Bowl, unfolded. It was the 49th edition of the championship of American football and it was a huge extravaganza both on the field and off. This year the New England Patriots prevailed beating the Seattle Seahawks game, 28-24.

Super Bowl 49 in Scottsdale, Arizona

Super Bowl 49 in Scottsdale, Arizona

Cheerleaders, gigantic fireworks displays, the American national anthem echoed by the entire crowd, Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz entertaining at halftime, all recipes were for a traditional show as only the Americans can put on. These monstrous performances of accompanying the sport are not practiced in France. Across the Atlantic this sport is, both among professionals and academics, a real religion. ‘Soccer’ (another name for the traditional European football) leaves the American football in anonymity on the Old Continent.

However, France also has its own traditional “Super Bowl.”

The French top league, FFFA’s Elite Championnat, has eight clubs. At the end of the regular season, the top four teams clash in the semifinals. The winners of these matches will meet in the final. This year the Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône Cougars, Aix-en Provence Argonautes, La Courneuve Flash, and Thonon-les-bains Black Panthers will fight for the title over the next two weekends.

The 31st final will take place on June 20 at Charléty Stadium, south of Paris, an extraordinary show for French sport, but far from the mega-American show. That said, where is this sport more than thirty years after the creation of France’s national championship? What is the current level of France’s national American football team? What technical, financial, and media advancements have the FFFA (Fédération Française de Football Américain) made to develop the sport and make France one of the world’s top nations?

FFFA

The logo of the FFFA (© FFFA)

A History of American football in France

American football dates back to the 1870s, when American scholars combined the rules of soccer and rugby, both recently imported from Europe. It was finally in 1883 that the rules of American football are officially codified and launched.

It would take almost 100 years to see this discipline introduced in France, through a physical education teacher, Laurent Plegelatte, which started in 1980 with the club Spartacus de Paris and three years later in the form of the FFFA. In 1993 American football was approved by the Comité National Olympique du Sport Français and was recognized by the Ministère des Sports in 1995. The FFFA has developed two parallel disciplines: the non-contact flag version of American football, and cheerleading.

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NFL’s Tennessee Titans American football cheerleaders (© gamedayr)

What  is the situation of American football in France?

Today, France has over 200 American football clubs and 21,000 members, divided into 18 regional leagues . The top clubs benefit from the American experience by recruiting and importing two players from overseas.  “The evolution of the number of practitioners has been strong since the early 2000s,” says Franck Lacuisse, Treasurer of the Federation.

However, Lacusise adds,

“There has been a growth slowdown for the past two or three years. The economic crisis makes access to our sport difficult because the equipment required is quite expensive, up to €300 on average. The equipment includes a helmet (the club colors too), protection for the shoulders, torso, waist, hips, knees, arms, elbows and hands. To become a football player there is an initial investment both financial and physically, which may partly explain why that the sport is not as popular.”

Yet the level of French American football, despite its low media and public visibility, is one of the best in Europe, if not the world. However, Xavier Mas, manager and coach of the Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars says, “is not even imaginable to compare France with the US or Canada.

At the university level in North America, collegiate players often spend 45 hours a week on their sport through workouts, video sessions, strength training and rehab. Diligent French player may only spend 6 hours per week.

Mas adds;

“Although, the athletic level of France may seem much less than the Americans, France has been a presence in all international competitions in recent years. At the European level, we are third behind Austria and Germany.”

The French national team, known as ‘Les Bleus’, was Europe’s silver medalist in 2010 and bronze medalist in 2014.

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France’s National American football team (© footballamericain)

The Future of American football in France

It is the FFFA’s goal to give France an international presence, develop the sport at a national level, and hope to one day be “involved in European and international institutions.” Franck Lacuisse relies primarily on the willingness of members of the Federation for development in France.

“The efforts of all associations and clubs create awareness of our sport and attract more investment from the community. Recently, the Federation has intorduced a series of ambitious measures to increase the popularity of American football in France. Among our goals is to reach 35,000 new members in the next 4 years, and to better reach out to the 300 clubs to communicate our practices and advocate for better media exposure.

From a communication perspective, the Federation has focused on social networks to try to attract a new audience, particularly through Facebook, Twitter and a YouTube channel.

At the media level, they’ve found a few new partners. The website Voxstadium.fr is one of the first to cover in full the 2014-2015 season of American Football in France. RMC, (Radio Monte Carlo) a French radio station, has partnered with the FFFA to cover the June 20th final. Currently, only local media mostly cover each club, but Xavier Mas believes that “teams are putting together ideas to successfully make themselves known and many are broadcasting their games on their own websites. But to break out of anonymity, it’s not enough.”

For Franck Lacuisse, “only the organization of an international competition will boost the image of the sport.” Lacuisse believes this would be a springboard for development. The possibility of competing with the Americans is a long term goal, and only possible with the development of “quality coaching and performance centers like the American football school of Saint-Denis Committee.”

For American football to its footing across the Atlantic will be difficult but not necessarily impossible. The French Federation is ambitious and hopes to win the right to organize the European Championships in 2018.

In the meantime, Team France has been building a product ready to be exported internationally. Next up for ‘Les Bleus’, is participating in the IFAF World Championships held in July in the United States. Funding the venture has been difficult and the FFFA has launched a crowdfunding campaign so the French public may assist the to allow Bleus to play at an international level.

France’s objective? To become the best European American football country, while living the American dream .

Source: www.letudiantautonome.fr

Romain Lambic
Master Journalism @UniversiteCergy, @Radio_NewVO, #LEASport. http://www.romain-lambic.fr .
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