NFL, looking for growth, finds open arms in Germany

NFL, looking for growth, finds open arms in Germany

About 60 die-hard National Football League fans gathered in the party space at Der Player, a swanky restaurant, on a freezing evening in Hamburg, Germany, last month. Wearing jerseys and hoodies from teams like the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders, they sat down to watch a taping of “Prime Time Football Live,” which draws thousands of viewers on YouTube.

At 7 p.m., Patrick Esume, former coach and now commissioner of the semi-pro European Football League, warms up the audience before launching a countdown: “Drei, zwei, eins, Football Bromance! He then introduced his panelists: former coach Andreas Nommensen; Mika Kaul, television commentator; and Kasim Edebali, who played six seasons in the NFL

For the next 90 minutes, they reviewed the latest games, peppered the audience with questions like whether Patrick Mahomes is one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, and dissected a four-game suspension that running back Denver Broncos cornerback Kareem Jackson received. Phrases like “bang-bang play,” “hard-nosed linebacker” and “downfield possession” were thrown around with ease.

Esume kept the show light and moving, and he leaned on Edebali for his expertise as a linebacker. At times, they came together to demonstrate legal fighting techniques and spoke in detail about how to study opposing offenses. Afterwards, the audience gathered around the panelists and took a group photo.

“Sitting next to them while we talk about football, it’s so interactive,” said Jenni Gayk, who wore a Chiefs jersey and has watched NFL games on German television since 2015. “We feels the NFL is becoming a lot more popular.”

Long the largest league in the United States with more than $20 billion in revenue annually, the NFL is looking for new ways to expand, including overseas. And nowhere is the league growing faster than in Germany.

The knowledge and enthusiasm of the audience at the recording – some came from as far away as Austria – was a sign of the NFL’s growing stature in a country whose sporting landscape is dominated by football. Football remains far behind the national sport, but 3.6 million Germans say they are avid NFL fans, 25% more than in Britain, which has hosted regular season games since 2007.

Interest skyrocketed last year when the NFL played its first-ever regular season game in Germany. Tickets sold out in minutes, as was the case this year for the two games that will be played on consecutive weekends in Frankfurt, starting Sunday when Kansas City meets the Miami Dolphins.

Ben Hensler, who has followed Kansas City since Joe Montana led the team in the early 1990s, tried to buy tickets online but found there were more than a million people ahead of him. Desperate, I paid 3,000 euros for VIP tickets for him and his two teenage godchildren, who sold their PS5 gaming console to raise money.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing because we’re not going to go to Kansas City to watch a game,” he said. “Years ago, no one knew who the Chiefs were and now they are the biggest team in Germany.”

Hensler’s godchildren, he said, are typical of the younger generation of fans who grew up with video games and social media and who enjoy the NFL’s high-octane entertainment. Football seems slow and traditional to them, while football “seems to be a modern sport and, despite all the interruptions in the action, it seems faster, especially on social media,” he said.

The NFL is trying to capitalize on this interest. In October, the league opened an office in Düsseldorf and five NFL teams were granted exclusive marketing rights in the country.

One of these clubs, the New England Patriots hire Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Kuhn, two Germans who played for the team, to work as German-language commentators. Their time as Patriots is one of the main reasons the team has 13 fan clubs in Germany and several more in Austria and Switzerland, said Robert Kraft, the team’s owner. The team has two employees working full-time looking for new sponsors in Germany.

Kansas City got off to a good start in Germany because its owner, Clark Hunt, also owns a soccer team, FC Dallas, which had a player development partnership with FC Bayern, the best football team in Germany. Kansas City hopes to generate more than 1 million euros ($1.05 million) in revenue this year from sponsorships and other deals in Germany.

“Obviously it’s a very small portion of overall revenue, but the growth rate is exponential,” Kansas City President Mark Donovan said. “Taking advantage of this timing is what will pay off decades from now.”

After years of rapid growth, the question now is whether the NFL can keep up with its own hype. The excitement around the Games in Munich and now Frankfurt is real. But like the annual games in London, they could become routine.

This season, the league’s new media partner, RTL, will broadcast more than 170 regular season games, however his grades so far have been mixed. According to Fanatics, Germany is the largest market for NFL-licensed merchandise outside of North America, but the 10 percent increase in sales this year is lower than in recent years.

Football was introduced to Germany by American soldiers after World War II, and the first semi-professional league began play in 1979. The country was home to some of the strongest teams in the European NFL league before its closure in 2007.

Since then, Edebali’s journey has largely followed the growth of football in Germany. Edebali, 34, joined a flag football team in Hamburg at age 9 and fell in love with the energy, strategy and camaraderie of the game.

He made a simple but seemingly improbable wish: to make it to the NFL. At age 15, he joined the Hamburg Huskies tackle team, and that’s when he realized how much harder he needed to work.

Bjorn Werner, who would become the first German player ever drafted in the first round, told Edebali about USA Football’s international student program, which placed him at a high school in New Hampshire.

“I thought I won the lottery,” Edebali said.

After receiving a scholarship to play at Boston College, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Saints. After three seasons there, he spent parts of the next three years with the Broncos, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and Raiders.

As happens to many players, NFL teams stopped calling, so Edebali returned to Hamburg in 2021 to play for the Hamburg Sea Devils in the new European Football League. He realized that he was something of a folk hero to German football fans, who considered him a pioneer for reaching the NFL.

“He was able to find his way in a world where there wasn’t really an obvious path for international players to get into the league,” said Alexander Steinforth, the NFL’s director of operations in Germany.

As the NFL ramped up its operations in Germany and fans were hungry for more content about the league, Edebali leaned on his experience and went to work as a commentator for ProSieben, which had the rights to broadcast NFL games. NFL.

Edebali also joined Werner, Esume and other soccer veterans at Football Bromance, a content company that promotes the league and the game. The group’s sponsor rented a 5,000-seat theater in Frankfurt the Friday before the Indianapolis Colts and Patriots game so they can interact with fans in an event called Bromania.

“It’s almost like football is a language,” Edebali said. “Obviously, native speakers speak it best, but in Germany we speak it too. »

Despite all the fervor for the league, the NFL is a long way from putting a team in Europe. The logistics of moving players and equipment between continents pose a significant obstacle. Even games that sell out in England and Germany lose millions of dollars.

Still, the NFL appears to be in it for the long haul. In 2015, the league developed a strategy to find new fans in Germany through German-language websites, newsletters and social media. It formed a partnership with ProSieben, which helped attract “legacy” fans who had roots in the NFL’s European league in the 1990s. The league introduced Game Pass, which allows fans to watch multiple games each Sunday.

The NFL has been successful in attracting a younger, educated audience that advertisers want to reach. Marcel Schwarzkopf, who manages sports sponsorships for DKB, an online bank that is the main sponsor of NFL games in Germany, said the NFL has a fresher, more digital approach to blending entertainment and sports than ” King Soccer.”

League fans are “exactly the target we are approaching with our retail group: high purchasing power and above-average financial interest compared to football fans,” he said.

DKB also partners with Football Bromance, which has helped turn Esume, Edebali, Werner and other former football players into celebrities recognized by young fans.

The NFL knows that getting kids to play football will increase their chances of remaining fans as they grow up. The league sponsors flag football leagues, which has helped increase participation in tackling football. There are more than 350 soccer clubs in Germany with around 50,000 players, up from 30,000 in 2006, according to Fuad Merdanovic, president of the German American Football Federation.

“People here want to be part of something big,” Edebali said, “and once you see others are interested too, you want to join in.”

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David B.Otero

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