Based on more than a snapshot of personal experience, I believe NFL football in Germany has a better chance of tapping into a lucrative mother lode than former wildcatter Jerry Jones did of striking it rich in oil fields … which he did.
The league clearly hopes for the same.
The NFL officially launched a process Wednesday to pinpoint a partner city in Germany in a bid to stage regular-season games there, similar to the role London has enjoyed since it began hosting International Series games in 2007. The league’s Head of UK and Europe, Brett Gosper, told USA TODAY Sports that “we’re aiming for games in some window October (or) November” in Germany for the 2022 season.
In the interim, Gosper and the NFL will be vetting potential sites, winnowing aspirants to a short list of candidates in what he deemed a “reasonably ambitious timeline” with the announcement of a German base of operations likely to come early next year.
Gosper downplayed rumors that the NFL wants to leverage the tourism surge around Oktoberfest, the famous annual beer festival held in Munich that draws millions – though predominantly in September despite its name.
“There’s no favored city in this approach,” said Gosper, adding the primary objective is “to have a deep, meaningful relationship with an area and a city so those benefits can grow over time” while the league also tries to fuel grassroots efforts and engagement within that market.
Still, a locale with a stadium appropriate for NFL football will be a key consideration. Any prospective venue would need sufficient locker rooms, a playing surface able to withstand the game, proper sideline accommodations and sightlines, not to mention a footprint conducive to ancillary fan activities. Security and traffic egress would also factor in.
NFL games in the United Kingdom have averaged more than 80,000 fans. However, the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer division, currently only boasts three stadiums – located in Berlin, Dortmund and Munich – with capacity exceeding 70,000, potentially limiting the NFL’s options.
Still, even though soccer is king in Deutschland, an affinity for American football has seemingly been percolating for some time.
I lived about 30 kilometers from Frankfurt in the early 1990s, my junior and senior years of high school, while my father was stationed in Germany as a battalion commander for the U.S. Army. It was also the apex of pro football’s insurgence, the NFL holding five preseason games in Germany from 1990 to 1994 while the World League of American Football (aka NFL Europe, aka NFL Europa) enjoyed its heyday.
I was witness to a passionate base of Frankfurt Galaxy fans … even if their enthusiasm for American football often outstripped their education – extra points and punts often drawing far more cheers than first downs or touchdowns. I still can’t unhear those ardent chants of “Goooo, Galaxy” tinged with the local accent.
And European fashion being what it was at the time, not unusual to see a local wearing green and purple knockoff Los Angeles Raiders gear, the NFL Properties police opting not to cross the Atlantic to crack down on such unofficial merchandise.
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Among other regional teams were the Berlin Thunder, Cologne Centurions, Hamburg Sea Devils and Rhein Fire, who once employed eventual NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison. Jake Delhomme, who quarterbacked the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 38, was a member of the Galaxy.
Players typically loved their European exposure. And, in my experience, the game often served as a bridge between the Germans and Americans living in their country – much as many of my friends began supporting Bundesliga clubs. And though it’s a dated, anecdotal observation, many Germans seemed to eat up American culture – even aspects we disavowed. There’s no denying they couldn’t get enough of David Hasselhoff’s music (or “Knight Rider” re-runs) after he famously sang “Looking for Freedom” with the doomed Berlin Wall as a backdrop.
An extensive American military presence remains in Germany, not to mention legions of expats – another factor that makes Gosper think the NFL could become entrenched.
Gosper, who previously served as CEO of World Rugby before being hired by the NFL late last year – Super Bowl 55 was his first day on the job – also cites massive interest in fantasy football and “Madden NFL” video game sales as illustrative of Germany’s “high growth” potential.
Per Gosper, NFL metrics classify 3.5 million Germans as “avid fans” – matching the UK figure – with a “total fan base” of 19 to 20 million, which exceeds the UK total. According to the NFL, weekly television viewership in Germany has grown by more than 20% annually since 2017.
After the league announced its intention to partner with a German city, Gosper said there was a spike of social media interest as well as quite a bit of outreach to him personally. He’s already heard from numerous municipalities seeking consideration and even received direct feedback from fans.
With the NFL season freshly expanded to 17 regular-season games, there’s also a new stipulation beginning next year that requires all 32 teams to play internationally at least once every eight years. The league can designate up to four neutral site games outside the United States annually and, according to Gosper, “there’s a process in place where (NFL clubs) can choose to activate an international market,” much as the Jacksonville Jaguars have done in London.
“There’s a lot of interest in activating their brands in Germany and in the United Kingdom and other core markets,” he added, saying it’s possible a team might volunteer for multiple games in Germany down the road.
Gosper says only owners can decide if the NFL ultimately pursues a more permanent foothold in Europe, whether that’s a franchise based there or even a division of teams.
“There are all sorts of indicators,” he said, “to say this is a great market for the NFL.”
Indeed. Goooo, Galaxy.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.