This took quite a bit longer to finalize than I originally planned.
Anyway, first a couple of things to keep in mind:
- All this is from my slightly biased Swedish perspective.
- Outside the U.S. (and Canada), we play by College rules.
- Besides my own views, a few personal anecdotes, there'll be a whole bunch of links to stories, sites and worth seeing games.
- It might be hard for some to come at peace with, but henceforth I will use the term "American football", as most links, etc, use that for football.
- Personally I think the best way to form your own opinion, in a purely football perspective, is to watch some of the more recent games.
- Our American football kickers and punters are essentially pretty bad. Over here, you won't end up as an American football kicker if you're good at kicking a ball.
So, here's my try of an insight into that (maybe terrible thought of) American Football in Europe:
The European American Football history:
Though American football has been played by the American commnunity stationed in Europe since the end of World War II, it wasn't until the late 70's that American football started to be a part of our European culture. And from 1976, when the first truly European team was formed (Frankfurt Lions), and 1978, when the first European football league was created (American Football League Germany), the sport has had a slow but steady growth rate.
As for Eastern Europe, it didn't really took off until after the Berlin Wall went up (down) in smoke, but have since grown at an even faster pace.
Today it's estimated to be some 1,500 male teams and 200 female teams in Europe. This is a good breeding ground for NFL to take from, as these guys and gals are truely devoted. Obviously I don't know exactly, but probably some 99.6% of them Pay to Play just because the love of the game. And then we also have all those around, family, friends, volunteers, officials, retired players etc. equally devoted.
As from the 70's to the 90's, I can only speak for what happened here in Sweden. This as my pre-internet knowledge of European American Football essentially is a black hole. But I suspect it's been more or less the same everywhere in Western Europe.
Sweden's first team was formed in 1982 and was called Danderyd Mean Machines, now the Stockholm Mean Machines, and SAFF (the Swedish American Football Association) was formed in 1984.
The first Swedish Championship finale was played in 1985 and was won by Lidingö Pink Chargers.
At that time, players were positioned out from the following criterias.
Someone who can throw a ball to the right zip code as QB, the biggest and tallest guys up front, a natural traffic jam as FB, the most nimble guy you could find as your RB, anyone who has ever caught some sort of balls with their hands as WR's, of which the tallest/biggest became the TE.
The not so tall but equally sturdy guys up front, the most fearless as LB's and all other volunteers as DB's.
(on a second thought, isn't that basically as American Football teams always done? Also in the US?)
Here's an old VHS copy of the Swedish Championship final from 1988 between Kristianstad C4 Lions and Lidingö Pink Chargers.
What's missing in basic knowledge, fundamental tactics and the slightest hint of finesse, they compensated with big hearts, brute force and a constant cursing.
But what really sparked it here in Sweden, was that Volvo sponsored pre-season game between the Vikings and the Bears.
The Swedish cable channel TV3 broadcasted the game, and then proceeded to send an early and a late NFL game every Sunday for many years to come. If you meet a slightly older (40+) Swedish football fan and say P-A Gullö (TV3's back then football commentator), he'll definitly give you a big smile, tell you that "those were the days" and then probably turns around to remove some dust he just got in his eye.
Because of this game and P-A Gullö's/TV3's continuing commitment, a vast majority of American Football teams in Sweden today was founded in the late 80's or early 90s.
And as a result of that increased interest on a more national level, in 1991 a nationwide highest division called Superserien was created. Unfortunately, after some very good years in the 90s, the sport slowly began to loose their older original players, and as most of the clubs lacked youth programs, the regrowth was close to zero.
But for the last fifteen years, most Svwedish clubs have invested in their youth teams and the sport has had a steady growth again.
As for me, after about 25 years of some soccer (sorry), hockey, team handball, but mainly volleyball, which was crowned with a Swedish Championship (Thank you! Thank you very much!), I started playing American football at the age of 30.
My first coach began with American football in the late 70s. In the beginning he and his friends used hockey helmets and ingeniously cut camping mattresses as shoulder pads. He told us it sounded like a crackling bonfire from all broken collarbones during their early years. He was then one of the founders of that first Swedish American Football team Danderyd Mean Machines, and also played in the Swedish National Team for quite a few years. Nicest guy in the world, but of course a pure malice on the field. Just as it ought to be.
In my first team, half of us were beginners and our first friendly game was a real test.
Later I found out that our coach had everything planned. He asked the, at that time, nastiest team in the region, Lidköping Lakers, if they wanted to play a game against us. And without telling us, he also asked them to be as mean, gruesome and unfair as they could. This to "separate the wheat from the chaff", and getting an idea of what he actually had at his disposal.
I then played in that and another team for a number of years, and also was a member of VSAFF (Western Swedish American Football Federation), where I really got an inside look at how difficult it is for a smaller sport to operate, develop and also make itself heard.
So, whichever way you see it, there's no doubt that the game of American football has grown a lot over here for the last thirty-forty years. It has had its ups and downs, but in general grown more and more at a steady pace. And that's what's also is going on in the rest of the world.
Just to "prove" that statement a bit more, here's a three-minute highlight of the 2015, wait for it... Egyptian Bowl:
And here's another thing to see (with a face or two, you might recognize).
Here's this year's Austrian Bowl XXXIII, between two of the better teams in Europe:
And here's one of the semi final game of this year's German Football League (GFL).
Finally a friendly game between Swarco Raiders Tirol and Benedictine Ravens (NAIA) played this spring... with English commentators:
If you want to see more European games to "acquire further education" in what we do over here, send me an email. I got plenty of games and other fun stuff to share.
And if you want more info on what's happening in the American Football world outside the U.S. I can recommend the site American Football International.
So, now it seems to approach a phase reminiscent of that in the 60's when the first Europeans came to the NHL. Although ice hockey in Europe had existed as long as in North America, NHL was for us a whole new ball game.
In the beginning, Europeans were seen as chickens, with their fancy skating, technique and such, but preferably avoided to take an "honest punch" in the face.
Eventually, it became a good mixture of punching and fancy skating/technique. And that made the NHL to what it is today, the world's best hockey league... bar none.
Now, don't you think I considers that American football players from Europe will change "your" football, like the hockey players somewhat did. Not even the slightest,. But with time maybe an additional asset.
And to "prove" that this might be a snowball that has already begun to roll, Oakland Raiders have had an exchange with the Austrian team Swarco Raiders Tirol for several years. Oakland Raiders streams Swarco Raiders Tirols home games on their web site (usually with a few uplifting words from Old Man Willie), and also invites Swarco Raiders Tirol coaches for further education and such every year.
(It is said that The Vikings had a similar proposition from Vienna Vikings, but rejected it. If true, shame on you Vikings!!!)
The city I live in has an American football team called Göteborg Marvels, now finally in the highest Swedish division. And for the last couple of years, on of the most popular sports bar in town, O'Leary's, shows all their home games. Imagine that ten years ago.
So, the harsh reality over here is that we've reached a critical point in the American football's future. A future that will belong to those European organizations who can break the mold of the amateurish past and establish themselves as a viable, well financed and managed organization, while at the same time the sport has to grow from below.
And that, I think, is based on a consistent European competition between the best teams in the different countries, to constantly raise the level and thereby increase the interest from fans, but equally important sponsors and the media.
Obviously the fun still must be a part in it, but fun in a "slightly" more professional manner.
Here are some wise words from Jon Walker, an American coaching the Swedish team Kristianstad Predators.
Into all this is another thing to consider. The competition from other long time established European sports.
In contrast to the U.S., we don't have a "few" major sports, we have a ton of major sports. All depends on what part of Europe it is. So, besides soccer, there's really no other major sports over here, but a large amount of different "big" sports deeply rooted in the different regions/countries.
So obviously it's soccer, but then also hockey, team handball, cycling, gymnastics, floorball, figure skating, wrestling, boxing, bandy, speedway, volleyball, dirt bike... the list goes on and on.
And depending on how popular the various sports are in the different regions, which part of the year they're exercised, American football in Europe have to fight for their own space against a large variety of major sports, in a regional and season dependent condition, and thus it can be difficult to set up a widespread coherent European American Football strategy.
And then we have the elephant in the room.
They clearly sees a business opportunity for their league beyond what can be achieved in the U.S. There's a reason that NFL has offices in the two potentially largest markets outside the US, you know. One in the UK for the European market and one in China.
Or as it's said in the below MMQB article:
"If brands of American football are developing in other parts of the world, the NFL wants its brand to be the main one."
Personally I don't mind the NFL to start/move a team to London, and then maybe more teams to other cities/countries.
But what I don't want is the NFL to interfere with "our own" European national leagues, or try something like that NFL Europe-bullshit-thing again. Although Europeans and fairly new to American football, we're not totally stupid, you know.
Obviously I can't speak for all, but if I (and many I talked to) can choose to see some not even practice squad NFL Europe team players or our own locally based teams, I without exceptions choose our local teams.
(so far I've seen five NFL London games, but to see one of those NFL Europe games never crossed my mind)
On the other hand, if the NHL and the IIHF, two different independent organizations, can work together in a (fairly) good way for the common good of Ice Hockey, why wouldn't the same be able to be done between the NFL and the IFAF? And if that thereby gave the opportunity to have NFL team(s) a few steps away from where I and all other other European American Football fans live, no one would be happier than me.
But an NFL team in London/Europe is a really really big thing to carry out. Not just the time change, logistics, and building a local fan base (which I think is the least of the problems), but how completely different sports actually work over here (and basically in the rest of the world), how much lower our ticket prices generally are (due to genuine member-owned teams), all those different tax rates for athletes' earned money that is so different between all our countries etc. etc. Well that's a completely different story.
More about that in "Lessons from Tor, American Football in Europe, part II".