Millions of people outside the US watch NFL games every week during the season, and there is huge interest in NFL news and even in the NFL odds that are offered by bookmakers across Europe. While there is no current NFL franchise based in Europe, the NFL itself is keenly followed in all the major European cities, particularly in Germany, the UK and Spain.
There are even players who have crossed over between the NFL and European football. Most notably, Kurt Warner moved from the Amsterdam Admirals to the St Louis Rams in 1998, eventually winning a Super Bowl with the Rams. Warner’s own backup, Jake Delhomme won the World Bowl for Frankfurt Galaxy before becoming the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
American football comes to Europe
The history of the link between Europe and the NFL dates back to the 1980s. During that decade, European television channels started showing highlights and live games from the NFL and a small army of dedicated viewers stayed up every night across Europe to see the action.
This increasing European popularity did not go unnoticed by the NFL, which had hosted some warmup games in London during the 1980s. NFL officials began to think about an intercontinental league and in 1989, the World League of American Football (WLAF) was created, featuring new franchises in the US and Europe. It kicked off in 1991 and enjoyed some early popularity.
Despite the growing support for the sport across Europe, this NFL-backed venture faded through the 1990s. The US franchises began to drop out and the tournament was rebranded to NFL Europe, but by 2007, it was no longer sustainable as a lack of TV interest made it impossible to pay professional wages to the – mainly US – players who made up the league.
The failure of the WLAF and NFL Europe did not, however, mean that the sport was losing popularity. One of the problems was that these leagues were seen as extensions of the NFL rather than homegrown and developed leagues and didn’t have deep roots.
Yet there was a pre-existing European football structure in several countries, that in some cases pre-dated the WLAF by a decade. The German Football League, which is the oldest and strongest of the European leagues, was founded in 1979, and even as various intercontinental and pan-European leagues have failed, the GFL has gone from strength to strength, attracting some of Europe’s best.
Germany is not the only European nation with a thriving domestic league. Finland (1980), Austria (1984) and Sweden (1991) all have their own leagues and this deeper foundation of interest in the sport has provided the framework for the revival of interest in football that Europe has seen in the last decade.
The European League of Football
While the national leagues are strong, there have still been multiple attempts to create a pan-European league that might be on the same scale as the NFL. The latest is the European League of Football (ELF).
Launched in 2021 with eight teams, it expanded to 12 teams for the 2022 season. As expected, German teams dominate with seven representatives, but there are also two teams from Austria and one each from Poland, Turkey and Spain. Frankfurt Galaxy were the inaugural winners in 2021 and this year, Vienna Vikings claimed the championship. With another six teams set to join in 2023, the ELF is aiming to grow to a total of 24 clubs by 2025, and this time there is genuine optimism that the tournament will be viable.
Meanwhile, the sport continues to thrive outside the ELF. There are now 37 professional leagues across 31 European countries and over 1,000 clubs in total.
NFL strategy change
At the same time, the NFL has changed its strategy as it aims to expand interest across the Atlantic. The introduction of regular season games in European cities, mainly London, has proven to be a big success. The support for the NFL games in London has been noticeably strong, with some of the games oversubscribed 12 times. There has even been speculation that the NFL may eventually launch a London or European-based NFL franchise.
In 2022, interest in the NFL and in the sport of football is stronger than it has ever been and with an increasing NFL interest in European games combined with the growth of the ELF, the future of European football looks bright.