It began with the creation of the World League of American Football. Now known as NFL Europe, the National Football League's vehicle for developing players and expanding interest in the sport enters its 13th season today.
Since its inception in 1991, NFL Europe has enjoyed the backing of the NFL. But how long will that support continue? NFL Europe was one vote away from extinction in 2003, but NFL owners agreed to keep the six-team developmental league afloat for at least two more years. The owners will review a status report on NFL Europe and decide after this season if they will continue pumping money into a venture that reportedly lost $20 million last year. Based on the last vote, the future of NFL Europe is tenuous at best.
"I would hope not," said John Beake, a former Denver Broncos general manager who served as the NFL's director of football operations for NFL Europe. "I always have respect for the wisdom and business acumen of our owners. But if they see growth, they see some movement, they see the fan base increasing and they see sponsorships and they see European television and they have some feeling that we are making some headway, I think that's very important to the owners."
NFL Europe has experienced some growing pains since its debut in 1991. It began with seven North American teams and three European clubs, but went to a six-team all-European circuit after resurfacing in 1995 following a two-year hiatus.
Only one charter member, the Frankfurt Galaxy, remains. The Scottish Claymores were benched for good after last season, joining the London Monarchs and Barcelona Dragons on the sideline.
The league has become NFL Germany as the country is the only one in Europe to embrace it. Five of the six franchises -- Frankfurt, Berlin Thunder, Dusseldorf's Rhein Fire, Cologne Centurions and the new Hamburg Sea Devils reside in Germany. The sixth team, the Amsterdam Admirals, is in The Netherlands.
"We have a niche in (Germany)," said Beake, who indicated Germany's interest in football goes back to the 1950s and '60s with American military service teams. "Once the NFL started televising games in Europe, especially the Super Bowl, and doing American Bowls in Germany, the sport really took off. To the fans, it's great family entertainment. Germany gives us our best chance to make NFL Europe a long-term success."
Another thing NFL Europe has going for it is the enthusiastic support of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. A staunch advocate of promoting the game world wide, Tagliabue has worked behind the scenes to help sell the owners on the idea that NFL Europe is good for the parent league.
"The NFL Europe League has helped expose our sport to an ever-growing number of football fans around the globe," Tagliabue said. "With a terrific mixture of sports and entertainment, NFL Europe has made great progress in establishing itself as a part of the mainstream European sports landscape."
Other NFL Europe supporters said the value of the league can't be measured in just dollars and cents.
Quarterbacks Kurt Warner of Arizona and Jake Delhomme of Carolina, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover of Dallas, wide receiver/return specialist Dante Hall of Kansas City, offensive guard Marco Rivera of Dallas and place-kicker Adam Vinatieri of New England are just a few of the many players who used NFL Europe as a springboard to NFL success.
The Buffalo Bills have eight NFL Europe alumni, including punter Brian Moorman, quarterback Kelly Holcomb, tight end Ryan Neufeld and wide receiver Drew Haddad.
Eighty-three former NFL Europe players were on 2004 playoff teams, including 15 on the rosters New England and Philadelphia, which played in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The NFL's 32 teams have allocated 271 players to NFL Europe this year, the most ever. The Bills sent six players overseas. Each NFL Europe team will include eight national players, who are non-Americans.
The decision to allocate prospects in record numbers this spring would indicate there is still a belief around the NFL that NFL Europe is useful in developing players.
"I think NFL Europe has been a very useful tool for young players," said John Guy, the Bills' director of pro personnel. A young player may only get 40-50 plays the entire preseason, whereas if he plays in NFL Europe, he may get 60 in a game and may get 600 through a season. So it helps the exposure of a player.
"What you tend to see is those guys who go to NFL Europe generally are a little behind when they come back as far as the installation of the system. But what you're beginning to see is those NFL Europe guys are developing into practice squad players that toward the end of the season become active from time to time. So there is a true developmental process going on," Guy said.
The developmental process is not limited to the players. NFL Europe provides opportunities for ex-players to get into coaching or develop management skills in front office jobs. The league also is a training ground for NFL officials.
Is it making money for the NFL?
"Maybe not, but it is sowing enough seeds to be beneficial," Guy said. "It is still teaching the game and spreading the game. It has created opportunities for players and coaches in this business. It has allowed ex-players to do internships in different aspects of the game. It has allowed them to coach, allowed them to look into management, officiating, different levels of the game. I see nothing but positives coming from the league's involvement with NFL Europe."
How long will NFL Europe last? Only the NFL owners know for sure. But the league is still breathing, even if it is on life support. Beake is hopeful the owners won't pull the plug when the subject comes to the table later this year.
"I think the owners know that you have to be very patient when you're growing a business internationally," he said. "I've had people tell me that it took McDonald's 13 years to make a profit in Barcelona. It took Ford (Motor Co.) 70 years to catch on in Europe. The people over there want to see that you're there for the long haul, and then you start building your business.
"Yes, it was a close vote the last time and it might be again. But it's like playing the game. Whether you win by seven (points) or by one, I'll take the one and win."
NOTABLE NFL EUROPE ALUMNI
PlayerPos.NFL TeamNFL EuropeSeason
Kurt Warner QB Arizona Amsterdam1998
La'Roi Glover DT Dallas Barcelona1997
Jake Delhomme QB Carolina Amsterdam/Frankfurt1998-99
Dante Hall WR-KR Kansas City Scotland2001
Adam Vinatieri K New EnglandAmsterdam1996
Brian Waters OG Kansas CityBerlin2000
Marco Rivera OG Dallas Scotland1997
David Akers K Philadelphia Berlin1999
Matt Lepsis OT Denver Barcelona1998
Joe Andruzzi OG Cleveland Scotland1998