GFL Chairman Carsten Dalkowski responds to growth of ELF

For 40 years, European football operated in the shadows of the German Football League (GFL). Governed by the German American Football Federation (AFVD), its professionalism, size and financial power all made it the pinnacle of the sport on the continent.

The height of success for the league was in the late 1990s with the 1999 German Bowl boasting an attendance of upwards of 30,000, coming close to and even trumping many NFL Europe games.

Following the departure of NFL Europe in 2007, the sport as a whole experienced a “dark age” in Europe based on attendance numbers, particularly in Germany. While interest in the sport seemed to wane, so too did fan attendance across the board. The collapsing of the bridge to the US and the highest level of the sport made apparent the chasm of the ocean that separated the two continents.

This did not last forever though as in 2016 the GFL began to pick up momentum and new transatlantic avenues were formed such as NFL Undiscovered, which eventually morphed into the NFL’s International Player Pathway program in 2017. 

Again, the GFL was back on top and growing the European game with young, fresh talent streaming into the league. In 2019, the Frankfurt German Bowl attracted over 20,000 attendees, the largest crowd since 2005. With teams like the New Yorker Lions, Frankfurt Universe, Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns and Dresden Monarchs all having deep pockets and playing in sold out stadiums, the future looked bright for the GFL

But in 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new pan-European football league – the European League of Football (ELF) – announced it was forming and its headquarters was set for Hamburg, Germany in what seemed like a statement move. The driving force behind the new league was former NFL Europe assistant and GFL head coach Patrick Esume who became the first commissioner of the ELF.

The GFL, like much of Europe, met this news with pessimism and apprehension. Despite this, in 2020 the GFL initiated conversation with the ELF but as Dalkowski puts it ‘due to different views and priorities these talks came to nothing.’ The GFL’s membership model is that of participation while the ELF operates a fan-based, non-participation model.

It was around this very same time that the GFL announced it was forming its own corporation with the Ligaverbund German Football League and removing itself from under the yolk of the AFVD, a process that began in 2016. This appeared to be a clear sign that the GFL and the AFVD also had differing opinions on priorities and direction. 

The ELF’s explosion onto the scene has coincided closely with the GFL’s recession. Some of the recent failings of the GFL, such as former AFVD President Robert Huber’s ugly exit, have nothing to do with the ELF; but others like Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns former head coach Jordan Neuman’s departure for the ELF have everything to do with what Neuman and others see as a lack of direction and innovation from the GFL.

The man currently attempting to navigate the maelstrom in front of the GFL is acting Chairman of the GFL Board, Carsten Dalkowski. His mandate as chairman is responsibility for, in his words ‘the organization of the GFL and its different operations as well as connection to other leagues and associations, especially the AFVD.

Since forming the GFL Ligaverbund, the GFL has reportedly found new partners, a name-giving sponsor, and signed a multi-year media contract with livestreaming company Sportdeutschland.TV. But despite this, their growth pales in comparison with the ELF’s whose media presence and production has been unlike anything seen in Europe since the days of NFL Europe. The ELF has created a league that is both marketable and attractive and sealed key partnerships with national TV, something the GFL has never been able to do.

Dalkowski explains from the GFL’s point of view how the ELF has managed to achieve so much success in a short time:

First, the ELF is obviously able to invest a lot of money into their own product, especially in everything that affects the ELF media presence. On the other hand, until now the ELF franchises have got their most significant factor of production for free. These are the German and European players and coaches who were trained and skilled in the non-profit clubs in Europe. 

Without these players and coaches and the work and money that these clubs invested, there would not be one ELF team able to play. That’s an obvious conflict that needs to be solved in the future. For example, the GFL clubs must invest in their own youth and field youth teams that also compete. We are missing that financial commitment from the ELF to the general sportsystem.

Onus still on club teams to develop the talent

The ELF has done little to address their lack of investment in grassroots football. CEO Zeljko Karajica has previously mentioned that while the ELF will have no youth teams, the league will endeavor to initiate an ‘ELF Academy’ that will ‘give players the opportunity to make the next step’. This, however, does not solve the problem of domestic leagues taking the brunt of the financial commitment by supporting youth and lower league teams to develop talent. It also doesn’t address a dilution of the on-field product due to more teams but no increase in developmental programs.

Player exodus

Dalkowski goes on to mention the GFL has seen a mass exodus of coaches and players. Jordan Neuman, one of the GFL’s most decorated coaches who led arguably the best team in Europe for years, has left the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns for the ELF’s Stuttgart Surge. Along with him have gone numerous key Germans from the squad not just to Stuttgart but to other ELF teams as well. However, the departure of so many players from the most successful and professionally run clubs in Europe to ELF, screams of an unrealized level of discontent within GFL ranks.

GFL responding

Dalkowski feels the challenges lying ahead of the GFL are threefold:

First, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis which is still noticeable in many different ways. Second, the loss of several strong players and coaches to the ELF. And third, the impact the ELF has had on some GFL or ex-GFL clubs that had to dissolve or at least step down in lower leagues. All of this has limited the growth and the development of the GFL during the last two years. 

However, due to the inception of the Ligaverbund GFL and the way we work together with the clubs in this organization, we are very confident that we will see even more progress as I already mentioned within the next five years.

Dalkowski is the acting Chairman of the GFL Board and is expected to remain positive in dark times. But the unfortunate truth is that regardless of the valid criticisms that he raises about the ELF, as it stands right now at least, the GFL appears to be lacking the appeal of the ELF. In just two years, the ELF has accrued an enormous following on social media and secured direct lines of communication to its membership and fan base.

ELF catching up

Although the ELF still has a way to go to reach the level of the GFL in its prime, they are making great strides and offering a marketable product to the commercial world. This will pay dividends in the long term as they continue to secure more funding and move towards becoming a professional league in Europe.

As with all organizations, time and growth creates a litany of voices pulling in different directions and the founding principles begin to fade. Unfortunately for the GFL, this has stagnated growth and left a gaping hole for the ELF to fill. If the GFL wishes to compete with the ELF, they need to make dramatic moves, and quickly.

Daniel Mackenzie is a Press Association graduate who works in journalism and communications in the third sector. Daniel began playing football for the London Warriors and Team Great Britain and has since played across Europe.