FOURTH OF A FOUR-PART SERIES ON GLOBALIZATION IN SPORTS
You want this league to survive, even though it's bleeding red ink. You cheer your heart out for the Fire or the Galaxy, knowing that if your favorite player gets too good he'll cross the Atlantic for the Big Show and be gone forever. You realize that the quality of play isn't the world's best, but dammit, it's your league, performing live in front of you, and you're going to support it. The athletes seem to be earnest, hard-working guys, and you've learned why the sport is so beloved overseas. So despite all the naysayers, you keep the faith because, really, who knows what this league might be in 10 years?
You're an NFL Europe fan.
Or you're a Major League Soccer fan.
Roughly a decade into the global expansion of the Two Footballs, there are striking similarities in the ways Americans have tried to import the world's most popular sport and export their own. NFL Europe (est. 1995) and MLS (est. 1996) have averaged the same attendance (about 15,000 per game) while learning the hard way that the globalized world is still fragmented by cultural differences. The leagues have developed Super Bowl quarterbacks and World Cup goal scorers, yet they suffer from what might be called the Howard Dean Syndrome: intense support among hard-core fans but not enough mainstream converts—not yet, at least—to be successful.
What fate awaits them? Well, the prognosis is a lot drearier for the league trying to persuade Helmuts to wear helmets. Last September, NFL owners came within one vote of killing the six-team Europe league, which has lost more than $20 million a year. But while the 10-team MLS has itself bled some $15 million in the past year (and $350 million since '96), its backers have shown a greater tolerance for red ink. They've also attracted new investors, built soccer-specific stadiums and even made plans for expansion.
Back when Don Garber ran NFL International, the league's global development arm, in its start-up days when anything seemed possible, he commissioned a study of European pigskin attitudes. "What we found was that people overseas knew about the NFL, understood the Super Bowl and thought of it as quintessentially American," Garber says. "It was cheerleaders and fireworks and big guys in helmets and pads, with loud, screaming fans." So Garber gave them what they wanted. He had gridiron zealots drive giant helmets around Berlin's Potsdamer Platz and wing footballs into the crowd. He had double-decker buses circle the field at the Amsterdam Arena laden with beer-addled Dutchmen and shirt-doffing hotties. (This was Amsterdam, after all.) But when he handed out footballs in European high schools, he watched in horror as kids played soccer with them.
Garber is still commissioning fan studies, but since 1999 he has been doing so as a literal commissioner—of MLS. And while he faces the immense task of converting the U.S.'s 18 million youth soccer players into fans of the professional game, at least he doesn't have to show them what to do with the ball. "Soccer is part of the general social fabric in our country," says Garber. "Minivan moms are a voting bloc. We have the one thing the NFL doesn't have in Europe: a grassroots movement, which is necessary for any sport to succeed."
It's no coincidence to Garber that NFL Europe has established its biggest foothold in Germany, which has the Continent's most advanced youth development system. While the Europe league has struggled to muster 10,000 spectators for games in Amsterdam, Barcelona or Glasgow, the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Rhein Fire have regularly filled their stadiums with more than 30,000 fans, almost all of them German Gen Xers whose enthusiasm puts Oakland Raiders diehards to shame. With the pickups of Berlin (which replaced London in 1999) and Cologne (which supplanted Barcelona this year), Deutschland is now home to four of NFL Europe's six teams. (The other two are the Amsterdam Admirals and Glasgow's Scottish Claymores.) In fact, says NFL International vice president Gordon Smeaton, the Europe league may eventually become an all-German affair.
"If we had to go back, we would focus on Germany first, and then let it expand," Smeaton says. "Look at the development of the NFL. Where did it start in the 1920s and '30s? It was very localized, and then it grew from there. Why would Europe be any different? You have many different ethnicities, cultures and attitudes toward sports. Attitudes toward America."