Another Team Bites the Dust: Norwegian Champions Pull the Plug

Tough times for American Football teams in Europe?

Kristiansand Gladiators logoFor the second time in less than a week, a top American football team in Europe has folded its tent.

Last week the Cologne Falcons finally threw in the towel after losing their major sponsor suddenly in early March. Norway has now seen a similar and even more sudden departure, not just of a top team, but of the title holders, the Kristiansand Gladiators!.

American football in Norway has seen an upward trend the past few years, with a large increase in the number of teams, and a gradually higher level of football.

Earlier Wednesday March 25, news broke that certainly puts a considerable dent in the impression that everything is well in Norway. For the first time ever, a reigning Norwegian champion has pulled out of the league the following year. That is exactly what the Kristiansand Gladiators did when they let the league know that they will not participate in the 2015 season!

Reason and Reactions

Undoubtedly, a lot of people, including the Norwegian federation, opposing teams and others with a relation to American football in Norway, are shocked by the news. Even in Kristiansand the news is received with disbelief, although the players and team management had known for some time where the ship’s been headed.

Norwegian champions -  Kristiansand Gladiators

Last year’s champion gone from Norwegian football

Edvin Jenssen, president of the Nidaros Domers

“This is very surprising and disappointing, and a poor impression to send other leagues and sports: That a reigning champion pulls out of league play 2 weeks before the season starts.

At the same time we hope the Gladiators get back on their feet as soon as possible.”

The reason given for pulling out of league play seems to be two-folded: A changed financial situation combined with a lack of players. We don’t have a full overview of the financial issues, but it is likely to be failing income generated from volunteer work the players do for the club or large sponsorship deals that have been lost. Beneficial financial deals such as access to very cheap housing for import players would also likely cause a larger cost if they were to be cancelled. That may be the case, but we do not have the correct answer when it comes to these details.

Lack of players is an interesting reason. There are undoubtedly a number of players that retired after a fantastic championship season in 2014. The championship was unexpected. Not because the Gladiators were a poor quality team on the field, but because the other championship game team – Eidsvoll 1814s – looked like the better team in the league for the majority of the season. For the Gladiators, where a large portion of the better local players in 2014 were older than the average of most teams, a championship season was perhaps a good way to end a long career in football for several of the players.

Norway - Ernst-Andersen-signing-day

Ernst Andersen – signing day

Best way to lose a player, yet still a loss

At the same time as some players retire, some leave for other reasons. Liberty University (NCAA FCS)-bound lineman Ernst Andersen may only be one player, but the loss of such high quality teammates may shake the remaining players’ confidence when it comes to believing in the team as a whole. Andersen was not alone; let’s have a look at the some of the players we’ve learned that were not going to play in 2015 (for various reasons) and were part of the team in 2014:

Allan Wetrhus, Chris Heimtun, Eirik Håverstad, Bartosz Kalejta, Long Hoang
Anders Melleberg Torp, Tobias Falkum, Benjamin Bjorvatn Øien, Aadne Flottorp
Alan C. Femenias, Lukasz Kadziolka, Christoffer Henriksen, Ørjan Øvstetun

In addition to the homegrown talent, the Kristiansand Gladiators have been heavily assisted by a relatively large group of import players for a number of seasons. Import recruiting seems to have been a bigger challenge in 2015 than previous years. At the same time the Norwegian federation’s bylaws were changed from 2014 to 2015. The changes meant there’s a maximum number of paid imports (4); a change that obviously influences what a club can do when it comes to bringing in experienced players from other places.

Whether the bylaw changes has affected the Gladiators efforts is something we don’t know for sure, but we are familiar with the fact that the Kristiansand side has met considerable obstacles in their recruiting process for the upcoming 2015 season. This includes an international transfer that has been rejected by the Swedish federation, as well as passport issues and expected signings that just didn’t pan out the way the Gladiators had planned.

Simen N. Kristensen, president Vålerenga Trolls

“This is obviously incredibly sad for our sport and underlines the importance of long-term thinking in the efforts made by both clubs and the federation. I don’t have a full overview of what happened in Kristiansand, so it’s a bit early to draw conclusions. But there’s no doubt the timing of them pulling out is terrible.”

It’s not unatural that the focus on building a youth program versus being import-driven is a topic of discussion in Norway following these news; particularily because the Kristiansand Gladiators have been the foremost team in the Norwegian league when it comes to the number of imports brought in. The Gladiators have been able to fulfill the federation’s requirements when it comes to having youth teams, but no one can rightfully claim that they have a youth program equal to such clubs as the Vålerenga Trolls or the Oslo Vikings.

At the same time the Kristiansand team that managed to get to the championship three years in a row (2012, 2013, 2014) and finally win in 2014, had a core consisting of many players who were brought up from a Gladiators youth program that was very strong in the early- to mid-2000s. However: A youth program is something that must be consistently maintained, and a debate about the use of club resources is certainly not out of place after the senior level Norwegian champions pull out of league play for the first time in history.

How does this affect Norway’s Elite Series in 2015?

Norway - Gladiators2

Gladiators playing the Trolls. Photo: Dag Thore Knutsen

The Elite Series, the Norwegian top level of football, consists of six teams. Now there are five left for the 2015 season. With only a few days left before Easter, and with the 1st round of league play on April 11th-12th, the Norwegian federation must scramble to find a solution where the league doesn’t hurt too much after the departure of the Gladiators. The way the league schedule is set up means teams have an uneven number of games against eachother, but an equal total number of games. With the Gladiators pulling out, teams are affected differently based on how many games they were supposed to play against the Kristiansand side.

The Norwegian federation has obviously informed all the clubs about the situation, and they’ve already given the clubs a number of options to discuss regarding how to schedule/reschedule the Elite Series. Some of these options only mean minor changes to the schedule, one option is to just disregard the Kristiansand games and play the others, and another option is to create an entirely new schedule. With only a few weeks left before the league kickoff, minor changes seems like the way to go – but that is up to the clubs and federation to iron out.

This is a major task, but it is expected that the federation and Elite Series clubs will deal with the situation in the next couple of days, and that the changes (or lack thereof) are announced by the weekend.

What consequences does this have for the Kristiansand Gladiators?

A brief era and the start of what could have become a dynasty is over, and it all culminated with this final amazing last-play touchdown to secure the Norwegian championship last year:

Pulling out of league play will clearly affect the reputation of both the Kristiansand Gladiators and the Norwegian league as a whole. Whether it affects the Kristiansand team’s abilities to recruit – both locally and internationally – attract sponsors and get people in the stands, remains to be seen. We do not doubt that the Gladiators will be back on the field. Keep in mind that we are talking about their senior men’s team; the Gladiators also have youth teams as well as a team for women. Those teams remain active and are still expected to participate in league play in 2015. This is not the end of American football in Kristiansand, although we have a hard time not viewing this as the miserable end to a very good era in the history of the Kristiansand Gladiators.

Norway - Kristiansand Gladiator women's team

Kristiansand women’s team at Prague Harpies

As far as 2016, the Gladiators have to come to peace with the likely scenario of not being in the Elite Series. Although they will probably be back on the field, it is reasonable to expect that they are demoted at least one level. 2016 is coincidentally the first time since 1997 that there will be three levels of Norwegian senior football: Elite Series, 1st division and 2nd Division. The Elite Series and 1st Division are played as regular 11-man football, while the 2nd Division is played as 9-man football.

Although it is possible that the Norwegian federation relegates the Kristiansand team to the 1st Division (and can even choose to let them stay in the Elite Series), it is perhaps more likely that the Gladiators are relegated to the lowest level; 2nd Division. Since one of the main reasons for the Gladiators to pull out is a lack of players, it only makes sense to let them prove that they no longer have a lack of players by first competing in and finishing a season of 9-man football in the 2nd Division before they get a chance to play 11-man football again…IF they qualify by beating the other 2nd Division teams.

Financial issues was as previously mentioned another reason why the Gladiators withdrew their team from the Elite Series 2015. It is worth mentioning that pulling out of the league has a cost too. For example one does not get a refund on fees paid to the federation for participating in the league. Last time a team pulled out, there was also a fine of 25,000 Norwegian kronor (approx. 3,000 Euros) for doing so. In addition, there is the potential liability for expenses other teams have and can’t recuperate when it comes to travel arrangements to Kristiansand, or other expenses directly related to games against the Gladiators. That being said, we’re pretty sure the financial burden will be less than a full season of participating in league play. It’s just that the return on the field surely will be very different…

We’ll get back to this story as more information is made available, and as it becomes clear both what has happened and what will happen. We expect both the Gladiators and the Norwegian federation to make official statements shortly, and in the case of the federation – information about the consequences for league play in 2015.

Here is a link to the original article in Norwegian on the Norwegian website Amerikansk Football.

JM Henriksen is a football coach in Norway. He currently spends most his time writing for the Norwegian-language website . Henriksen first got involved in football in 1989, and has been coaching several club teams as well as the