How the NFL Introduced American Football to Europe

There may not be any franchises based in Europe yet, but there is no doubt that the NFL is hugely popular across the continent. Played and watched by millions, the sport has been a success in cities such as Frankfurt, Barcelona and London for decades now.

European fans were already staying up late to watch NFL games in the 1980s. But it was at the beginning of the 1990s that the first intercontinental leagues capitalized on the popularity of the game. The Las Vegas online sports betting sites may not have taken too much interest. But the sport was growing in Europe and the fans fondly remember the time.

World League of American Football

The NFL had hosted warm up games in London in the 1980s and noticed the growth in support for American Football in Europe. So, in 1989 the World League of American Football (WLAF) was founded, with the first season of play coming in 1991.

The WLAF originally consisted of three divisions, the North American West, the North American East, and the European. North American teams tended to be located in big cities without an NFL team of their own – and the European teams were based in Barcelona, Frankfurt and London. 

With teams made up of young players and those not deemed good enough for the NFL, the WLAF went largely unnoticed in the US and Canada. But European fans grabbed the chance to support a local team in the sport they loved. After two years the North American franchises ceased operation and six European teams came back after a two-year break to play in a new-look WLAF.

NFL Europe/Europa

 In 1998 the league was rebranded as NFL Europe, still consisting of six teams all based in Europe. Attendances had been high in the first few years of the league – when it was still the WLAF – but interest seemed to be waning. With crowd sizes plummeting, new teams in Germany replaced those in London, Barcelona and Scotland.

So in 2007, five of the six teams were based in one country and the dream of a World – or even European – league seemed to be fading. Crowds did improve but the TV money was dropping, alongside the players’ wages.

 In 2006 the league rebranded one last time – to NFL Europa – but played one more season before abruptly ceasing operation just a week after World Bowl ‘99, played in front of 48,000 fans.

Those in charge cited a new international strategy for the NFL in Europe – and the introduction of regular season games in European cities has been deemed a huge success. There has even been talk of a franchise being based in London but nothing has been announced on that front.

Figure 2 Many European players will have taken up the game because of the league

League Legacy and Notable Players

There is no doubt that in the early days of the WLAF, thousands of European fans were able to watch professional American football games for the very first time. This obviously made a huge impression and provided the sport with a higher profile – especially in Germany.

There are now leagues across the continent that might not be playing at such a high level – and without the financial backing of the NFL – but continue to inspire children to take up the sport and dream of playing in the big league in the US.

There are also probably many players that saw WLAF and NFL Europe games when they were young who then played on US college teams when they grew up. But the leagues also had some famous alumni of their own.

Kurt Warner famously won a Super Bowl with the St Louis Rams in 2000 but he was playing for the Amsterdam Admirals just two years earlier. His backup was Jake Delhomme who then went on to win the World Bowl with the Frankfurt Galaxy a year later and to be the starting QB for the Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

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