Beyond the Budget: Dominating American Football on a Shoestring

While conducting research for Travis Brody’s upcoming book, which aims to cover the past, present and future of American Football in Europe, Travis and I have collectively interviewed dozens of American football teams from nearly every European country. Altogether, this exploration is rapidly becoming the most exhaustive body of research in existence concerning American football in Europe. One of the things that this process has made clear is the difficult financial reality that most American football teams in Europe face in their quest for growth and prominence.

Most, if not all American football teams in Europe have to dig very deep to overcome financial obstacles. First of all, while most governments in Europe subsidize soccer, rugby, and ice hockey, they generally do not do so for American football. Therefore, American football teams are left to fully fund themselves. On top of this, American football is much more expensive than any other sport due to the fact that the game requires substantial amounts of specialized player and field equipment. Additionally, American football requires more of an investment in coaching depth than any other sport, with head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, and position coaches being necessary to fully staff a team. What’s more, American football requires facilities for weight training, physical therapy and rehabilitation, and film sessions. These facilities are difficult to reliably obtain for American football teams, and they are all quite expensive. In short, starting and maintaining an American football team anywhere is financially difficult, but is especially difficult in Europe where the existence of the sport is generally resisted by governments and field schedulers who tend to openly favor the more traditional sports of soccer and rugby.

It is not surprising then, that in this light, there is a prevailing sentiment in the American football community in Europe that if teams had access to larger budgets, the level of American football play in Europe would correspondingly improve. Surely, if a team could afford top-notch facilities, high-caliber import coaches, import players, and all the best equipment, then that same team would perform at a higher level on the field.

While it is easy to recognize how important a sufficient budget is to a successful American football organization, I would be remiss if I did not point out that many of the most successful American football teams in Europe have found their success while operating within the confines of a very modest budget. It is certainly quite expensive to create and maintain a high functioning American football organization. However, with the right vision, commitment, and passion, several exceptional teams in Europe have proven that they will not be held back by a limited budget.

The Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars are the quintessential example of a powerhouse team operating on a shoestring budget. American football is quite widespread in France – a country with well over 150 American football teams. In addition to being broadly prevalent, the sport is also more advanced in France than in most countries in Europe and there are many high-caliber teams capable of great success. Amidst this setting, the Cougars are the 2015 defending French champions. They finished the season undefeated, winning all 14 games. Moreover, the Cougars have an operating budget that pales in comparison to the budget of many of the teams that they roundly defeated in 2015. Additionally, the Cougars do not have any remarkable facilities and none of their coaches are paid.

Another classic example is the Milano Seamen, who won the Italian championship in 2014 and 2015 after losing in the championship game in 2013. This is quite impressive considering the Milano Seamen cannot afford to pay any of its coaches or managers, and even more impressive considering that the Italian government does not subsidize the Seamen at all. This team has to work extremely hard just to be able to afford player equipment and uniforms, and look at them – 3 straight appearances in the Italian championship game, with the most recent 2 being not just victories, but decisive ones.

In this same fashion, the London Warriors just won their third national championship in 2015. They managed to create this impressive accomplishment without any import players or paid coaches. The Warriors don’t even play in a real stadium – they play on a rugby pitch due to the high cost of stadium use.

The Basel Gladiators are yet another team which has prevailed in the face of financial limitations. The Gladiators have a smaller budget than every other team in the highest division of American football in Switzerland, yet they have appeared in the Swiss national championship game in six of the last eight years and won the title in 2014. The Gladiators are clearly not restrained by a modest budget.

Competing in the toughest, most well-established and well-funded league in Europe – the German Football League – the defending German champions, the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns won the German national championship in 2011 and 2012. They made it back to the championship again in 2015, but lost to the Braunschweig New Yorker Lions, the team widely accepted as the best in all of Europe. The Unicorns only pay one full-time coach. Their operating budget is far less than almost every other team in the GFL and they receive no government subsidies. In this light, their success in one the most competitive American football leagues in Europe is especially remarkable.

Perhaps the most striking example of a team that absolutely dominates the sport of American football despite budgetary constraints is the Carlstad Crusaders. Much like the Unicorns, the Crusaders are a local team, in that the overwhelming majority of Crusader talent comes from the township of Carlstad and from the surrounding areas. Moreover, because Sweden has a rule limiting the number of import Americans even more restrictively than almost all other countries in Europe, the Crusaders have never had more than two Americans on their team at any one time. They do not even have their own facilities. However, the Crusaders have been to 13 consecutive Swedish national championship games, winning the past eight.

How is it possible that these American football teams have managed to overcome their budgetary constraints and reach such impressive levels of success on the field? Part of the answer to this question lies in the unique essence of American football as a sport, and part of the answer lies in the special individuals leading each of these organizations.

Success in American football is more dependent on coaching than any other sport in the world. Coaches design the entire playbook and they create strategy from within every one of the numerous dimensions of the game. Whether it be goal-line defense, kick-off, or two-minute offense, coaches are integrally engaged in every aspect of the game. They make real-time decisions throughout each game including play-calling, half-time modifications, and player substitutions. A team’s ability to afford state-of-the-art facilities and the best equipment will not win games against a team with superior coaching.

For example, Mr. Xavier Mas, the General Manager of the Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars, described to me in an interview how he manages his practices. He designs each practice well ahead of time. He emails his detailed practice schedule to all of his other coaches – and to his players – days before the practice so that everyone knows exactly what to expect. During practice, it’s all business. Transitions are seamless and no time is wasted explaining drills because everyone shows up well-prepared for practice. This is the exact kind of difference that coaching can make, and this leadership certainly explains at least part of the reason why the Cougars went undefeated in 2015 and won the French national championship, despite having a small budget.

Preparing for each season and every game is another factor of success that is uniquely important in American football compared to other sports. Not only are American football seasons very short – usually no more than 4 months – but each season consists of very few games – never more than one a week. This means that much of the work that goes into a successful season occurs in the off-season. It also means that each game is extremely important. It does not matter how much money you have spent on facilities, coaching, import players, and equipment if you have not used the off-season to the maximum extent possible and if you have not prepared for the upcoming game as thoroughly as possible by studying film. If you are facing a team with a small budget which has done both, you will almost certainly lose.

Mr. Amilcar Piedade, the head coach of the Lisboa Navigators is proof. In an interview, he admitted how, in one particular national championship game, the Navigators faced a team that was simply more talented and better from an overall standpoint. However, this team did not enter the game with a modified game-plan. “They ran the same stuff that they had run all year, and we were prepared for this.” The Navigators faced a better team, but they were more prepared – so they won. The lesson here is quite clear: If you know your opponent inside and out and you are more prepared, you will win, even if you are not necessarily the better team.

Team chemistry is another factor. American football is a true team sport unlike any other. In an earlier article I discussed how American Football is unique among team sports in that nearly every position requires a completely different type of physical build and emotional mindset from the players who step into their respective roles. No matter who you are, there is a place for you on the team. From the kicker to the defensive tackle, an extraordinary variety of athletic and mental attributes are required.

This unique dimension of American football makes teamwork, and more importantly team chemistry, more essential to victory than any other sport. “Superstars” have the least impact on a team’s success in American football than in any other sport. Tom Brady, while certainly the greatest quarterback of all time, would be nothing without his offensive line, his running backs, his receivers, his special teams teammates, and his defense. Brady is certainly unique in his ability to transcend the level of play of those around him. However, if he were not surrounded by teammates who carried as much of the load as he did, he would not have any Super Bowl rings. This is not the case in sports like soccer and basketball, where one super star, although never enough alone to win championships, can certainly impact every game in a dramatically powerful way by occupying the ball and being the superstar. In American football, teams without any truly exceptional players but which actually play as a team can beat any team out there that is stacked full of superior athletes who play as individuals.

The Milano Seamen aptly demonstrate this truth. Mr. Marco Mutti, the President of the Milano Seamen, explained how special the team dynamic is on his team. He described how “everybody is truly dedicated to the program. If I paid each player 100 Euros, we’d be finished in a couple of weeks. The players really believe in the team and have a passion for football.”

Mr. Xavier Mas also described how important chemistry is to his team’s success. He explained how the import players are not the “cherry” like they are in most other teams. Import players on the Cougars are simply “players on the team,” and they are treated as such. They do not have a “special status”.

People like Mr. Mutti and Mr. Mas understand that team chemistry, especially in American football, is absolutely essential to the success of a team. They also understand that no amount of funding will be able to compensate for an absence of true team chemistry.

It is inspiring to observe the perseverance of teams like the Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars, Milano Seamen, the London Warriors, Basel Gladiators, Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns and the Carlstad Crusaders. It is even more inspiring to feel the passion flowing from those who lead those teams to great success.

These teams are proof that when it comes to American football, victory hinges far more on the intangibles – subtleties such as coaching, preparation, and chemistry – than it does on the tangibles such as equipment, facilities, and paid coaches or players. With American football, passion, heart, and devotion reign supreme. May it always remain this way.

Read the original article in The Growth of a Game.

The Growth of a Game is a Belgian-based company connecting football advocates across Europe. We work with teams, players, coaches, and fans to grow American football and build a foundation for further development.