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Posted: Friday October 2, 2009 3:48PM; Updated: Thursday October 8, 2009 4:16PM
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Thriving American football subculture in Germany (cont.)

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berlin.jpg
Adler's bone-crunching pass rush will be the on display Saturday.
Adler file photo

"We are like any other sports federation, like FIBA or FIFA," says IFAF president Tommy Wikings, referring to the governing bodies of basketball and soccer. "Our responsibilities are anything related to football worldwide."

Without the financial and marketing muscle of the NFL, attendance at American football games in Europe has suffered. In 2007 nearly 50,000 attended the last World Bowl, the NFL Europa championship game, in Frankfurt. Last year, in contrast, just 16,000 were in the stands for the German Bowl, widely considered Europe's most popular football event.

A week after the 2007 World Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that NFL Europa -- which was losing a reported $30 million per year -- would close. Soon afterward Goodell unveiled a new strategy to grow the game abroad, focused on the United Kingdom: The NFL would stage regular-season games annually at Wembley Stadium in London; Goodell recently said there was a realistic possibility of an NFL franchise in the U.K. within the next 10 years.

"Twenty years ago, when the league started to look at Europe, we thought we would build through grass roots, through NFL Europa and through getting local communities to be passionate about the sport," says NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood. "The problem was that technology and the way people consumed the game changed. Now we have a top-down strategy. We put the best of our sport on display, increase television distribution and work with amateur federations to get more people to play."

Kirkwood acknowledged that football is more popular on the European mainland than it is in the U.K. but says the latter is a more attractive market for the NFL. "Our TV ratings [in the U.K.] are up 45 percent from last year," he says. "We're creating a level of sharp focus, not spreading ourselves thin across a number of countries."

Some longtime coaches in Europe, many of whom have NFL Europa experience, are uneasy about the NFL's new direction. They acknowledge that NFL Europa's finances were a disaster but said the investment paid off in the talent the league returned to the NFL. Two of the stars of Super Bowl XLIII, Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, spent time in the European league.

"Financially it probably would have never been self-sufficient," says Chris Winter, an American who coaches the Zürich Renegades in Switzerland. "But some of the losses are made back to the NFL when people are paying to see Harrison or Warner play."

NFL Europa's closing also eliminated one of the few options European players had for playing high-level football. While the league was dominated by Americans, it provided European players with something to aspire to. "NFL Europa was at its prime when it shut down," says Winter, who has been playing and coaching in Europe since 1997. "It gave athletes here a legitimate goal to shoot for and showed how to play the game at a high level."

In many ways NFL Europa compares with Major League Soccer in the U.S. Both attempted to sell a traditionally foreign sport to a reluctant and oversaturated domestic audience. Like NFL Europa, which began in 1991 as the World League of American Football, MLS has consistently lost money since it began play in 1996. But the league has succeeded in raising the profile of soccer in America; teams have loyal fan bases, the level of play has risen over the years and many franchises have built or are planning their own soccer stadiums. MLS also plays a role in developing players for the U.S. national team and has been a valuable stepping stone for Americans to move to more competitive leagues overseas. MLS and its franchise owners have traded short-term profitability for a long-term vision based on a belief in the product.

After 17 years, the NFL was unwilling to make a similar financial trade-off. "The conflict we had since the beginning was player development," says Phil Hickey, who helped run NFL Europa's Berlin franchise. "New York [where NFL Europa's headquarters are located] wanted to use the league to develop American players. We wanted to develop Americans players as well, but we also wanted to bring along Europeans. It was tough bringing over 45 new American faces every year and selling them to Europeans."

Despite these challenges,"all of our markets were growing every year," Hickey maintains. "We were close to turning a corner."

For most American players in Europe, arguments over the closing of NFL Europa are academic -- they're happy to be playing football and getting paid to do it. Most are in their 20s and played at smaller Division I programs or in Division II or III. A few came directly from high school. Almost none of them played in NFL Europa.

At the Adler's practice facility at Stade Napoleon, a former French military base on the outskirts of Berlin, Patrick O'Neal, David McCants and Jon Grant were preparing for the German Bowl. The three are highly representative of American football players in Europe: Each is from a small town, played at a small college and hardly ever dreamed of visiting Europe, let alone playing professional football there.

"I thought I'd sign somewhere as a free agent in the NFL, but that didn't happen," says the 26-year-old Grant, who played quarterback at UC Davis. "I got into camp in Canada and didn't make that squad. I tried out for the Arena league and ended up playing in Arena 2." He found out about opportunities abroad through Europlayers and played in Finland before joining the Adler this season.

Grant, who returns to California to work in the off-season, said he has no plans to attempt to play in North America again. Nor does he have any illusions about football's place in Europe's sports culture. "Soccer is king here," he says. "Football is a niche sports. But to our fans it's a pretty big deal."

Grant enjoys what he calls the "rugby culture" in Germany: "You win by 40 points and you party on the way home. You lose by 40 points and you party on the way home. It's completely different than even Arena 2."

Grant and McCants, the running back, are largely responsible for Berlin's success this season, with the tandem producing the majority of the Adler's offense. A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., McCants, 22, played college ball at North Alabama. He was initially surprised at the level of play here.

"I was expecting them not to be good, but I saw quickly in practice that there are a couple of athletes out here," McCants says. He plans to return to America during the European off-season to prepare for tryouts with an NFL or CFL team. For now, though, he is focused on the German Bowl.

"I'm expecting it to be big," he says. "Everyone else on the teams says it's a big thing over here, a mini NFL championship."

O'Neal, 23, grew up in Gainesville, Fla., and played at Union College in Kentucky. He found out about an opening with the Adler though a network of friends and coaches, and signed as a linebacker just before the season began in May. He says he has no expectations to play in North America. Instead, he's making the most of his time abroad.

"How many people can say they've been to Europe? No one where I come from," he says. "When I got here I played in Paris. How many people can say they played football in Paris?"

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