This article was originally published on April 1, 2016, and republished without changes in February 2018.
Professional American football may be on its way back to one of Europe's top soccer nations.
Germany, the defending world champions in soccer, could soon join the United Kingdom and Mexico in hosting U.S. National Football League games. The first game may come as early as next year.
The country was a topic again in discussions between the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and club representatives at their annual meeting on March 23, according to a league spokesman, and two German stadiums have confirmed contact with the American football organization about hosting a game.
“There is a lot of interest in spreading the NFL games beyond U.S. borders” and in having one of them played in Germany, which is viewed by the league as “one of the world’s premier sports markets,” NFL spokesperson Michael Signora told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Stadium operators in Düsseldorf and Berlin said they are in touch with the American football organization about bringing a game to Europe’s largest economy as part of the NFL International Series.
“We’re in regular contact,” said Martin Ammermann, a director with the firm Düsseldorf Congress Sport & Event, which is responsible for operating the city’s Esprit Stadium. “We’re very interested in having a game played in our stadium,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition, listing several benefits of the multifunctional stadium, including its location in a wealthy business city with an international airport and within easy reach of more than 11.5 million people.
Our focus at the moment is very much on Mexico and Germany. Mark Waller, executive vice president of the NFL’s international activities
Olympiastadium Berlin, the operator of the German capital’s iconic Olympic Stadium, told Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication, that it was also in touch with the NFL.
Interest among stadium operators, including Frankfurt and Munich, surges with every mention of Germany by the NFL.
A regular-season professional American football game fills stadiums with fans willing to pay premium ticket prices. All three games in London this October – two at its Wembley Stadium and one at the Twickenham Stadium, are already sold out – with prices ranging from the lowest behind-the-goal seats at £40 (€51 or $58) to £248 center-sideline seats. Plans are on the table to turn the United Kingdom into a permanent franchise as well.
Last year, when asked about a regular-season game coming to Germany, Mark Waller, executive vice president of the NFL’s international activities, told reporters the country was high on the league’s list of favored candidates, including Mexico and China, to help lead its international expansion beyond London.
“We love Germany,” he said at the time. “Our focus at the moment is very much on Mexico and Germany.”
Mexico has meanwhile won one of the highly coveted international games. The Oakland Raiders will host the Houston Texans in a Monday night game on November 21 at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. It’s the first game there since 2005, when the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 before 103,467 fans.
The long break was partly due to the NFL’s concerns about the quality of the stadium but mostly because its much larger interest in staging matches in wealthy London, which will host three games again this fall for the third straight year. But with modernization of Azteca Stadium and the league’s interest in the huge Hispanic market, a return was inevitable.
Now all eyes appear to be on Germany, the home of New England Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and a major American football hotbed dating back to the NFL Europe days. Before the plug was pulled on the European venture in 2007, after reportedly losing $30 million a season, five of the final six teams were based in the country with the other in the Netherlands.
“It would be absolutely fantastic to go to a game again in Germany,” said Tobias Maurer, a student from Düsseldorf who is currently studying in Tübingen and plays football there in his free time. “My father had season tickets to Rhinefire (the NFL Europe team in Düsseldorf), so I got to see plenty of games.”
The league, launched in 2005, was used by the NFL not only to promote the sport internationally, but also to test young talent and produce players such as the quarterback, Kurt Warner, who later led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl championship.
Some franchises drew strong crowds, especially Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. Fans liked the party atmosphere, the American snacks and the cheerleaders. For many, the games offered a form of entertainment far more relaxed than soccer matches.
But the NFL games played in both Europe and the United States received little television coverage in Germany, a sore spot with an organization that derives the biggest chunk of its revenue from selling expensive broadcasting rights.
Mr. Waller told reporters in early 2015 that “an overriding issue in Germany” remained television rights distribution. Although the league had managed to put its playoff games and Super Bowl championship on German airwaves, it “struggled to find a carrier for the regular season.”
That situation has since changed. Since the start of the 2015-2016 season, ProMediaSat.1 has been showing regular-season NFL games as well as the playoffs and the championship as part of three-year contract. This season, the private broadcaster will air 50 regular games on its ProSieben MAXX channel, which targets viewers in the age bracket 14 to 39. Last season, it averaged 590,000 viewers per game, showing two per Sunday evening.
The group has also televised the Super Bowl 10 times, drawing 1.79 million viewers to the tube for this year’s championship with the Denver Broncos beating the Carolina Panthers 24-10 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
“That was our best-ever viewership for a Super Bowl,” a company spokesman told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “We’re very satisfied.”
One of the big challenges in expanding NFL games to Europe is not finding interested spectators abroad, but convincing massively passionate fans in the United States to give up one of eight regular-season games. “The biggest thing for us is how many home games we are able to get teams to commit to,” Mr. Waller told reporters.
Extending the number of games is also difficult. Football is a totally physical game, often of excruciating pain, with huge men hurling themselves at each other. Few survive a season without an injury of some sort. So club owners and coaches are reluctant to add games to the season.
Nor is the league ready to rush its international development. “Consistency is a big part of what we do,” Mr. Waller said. “It’s not about bringing a circus to town.”
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]