SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/This Weeks Issue

World of uncertainty for NFL Europe

The NFL's costly experiment of exporting its game to soccer-crazy Europe is facing the off-field equivalent of a fourth-and-long.

NFL Europe's current lease on life expires when the final gun fires Saturday at its championship game, World Bowl XI, and it's unclear whether it will return in its current form, or, indeed, in any form.

During the summer and early fall the NFL will consider the fate of its six-team outpost, which costs the owners who rule America's favorite sport about $25 million annually. That's on top of the players union's annual $15 million contribution.

The owners are scheduled to vote Sept. 17 on whether to continue funding their high-priced offspring, revamp it or perhaps even sound the final whistle (the NFLPA has no vote). Nothing, for the moment, is off the table.

"The model doesn't work in terms of the way we have it structured," said Doug Quinn, senior vice president of NFL International, whose department's summer homework includes crafting a proposal to present to the owners. "We have looked at every model you can possibly imagine. It's like a Rubik's Cube: We turn it around and keep on looking at it."

At the crux of the problem is NFL Europe's mission. Is it a development league for players, coaches, executives, referees and even broadcasters (Fox Sports' Troy Aikman cut his teeth overseas)? Or is it an audacious marketing initiative to bring the sport of football to the old country, where football means only one thing: soccer?

When launched in 1991 as the World League, the answer was clear: Build an NFL commercial presence in Europe.

"Overall it was a challenge, no question about that," said Oliver Luck, who ran the league for five years through 2000 and was a general manager for two teams in the early 1990s. "Europe has a number of indigenous sports, and American football is not one of them."

Bleeding $40 million a year, the league today primarily points to NFL Europe's development benefits rather than to commercial appeal. Two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner toiled in Europe, and teams avoid expensive mistakes by seeing whether players flop overseas instead of as costly accessories to an NFL team payroll.

At the same time, TV ratings in Europe and on Fox are weak, with 415,000 fewer viewers watching the regular-season games this year than in 1999, a 29 percent drop (see chart). Meanwhile, total viewers watching the World Bowl dropped more than 50 percent during that period.

No NFL owners contacted for this story would comment, not surprising given that the league office has yet to put a proposal before them. But sources say there is growing dissatisfaction among ownership that the league costs them so much.

Prior to an owners meeting last month, Pat Bowlen, the Denver Broncos owner, told SportsBusiness Journal: "The league has been very beneficial in the area of a training ground for both players and coaches, [but] we haven't gotten a lot of value in other areas. Could we operate it economically better? We certainly could."

Wolfgang Pfeiffer, who covers the Rhein Fire for one of Germany's largest newspapers, Die Rheinpfalz, warns that if the league is shut down, as it was in 1993 and 1994, the sport will wither and die.

"The fans won't come back," he said. "That is what the NFL owners must know."

The Fire, which plays in Gelsenkirchen, and the Frankfurt Galaxy fare well, drawing crowds in the 30,000-40,000 range, in part due to their proximity to U.S. armed forces bases. But the Berlin franchise struggles, Pfeiffer said, and he described the Barcelona team as a disaster, despite its marketing alliance with soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona. The Scottish team struggles against rugby, and the Amsterdam team treads water, he added. Each team draws crowds between 10,000 and 20,000.

Pfeiffer's prescription is no different from Quinn's: more teams. Rather than retrenching, the sport needs more rivalries and markets to work, they say.

But how would the owners respond to a request for more funds?

"Is profitability one of the primary goals?" Quinn asked. "It may not be. Making sure we have a broader footprint throughout Europe may be more important."

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