The Original World League of American Football

NLF Europa

By the end of June 1997, NFL Europa announced that it would cease all operations, effectively ending the NFL’s hope of selling American Football to the world as a viable commodity. This essay will explore the cause of the failure of football in Europe. The NFL always markets itself as a saleable commodity. Unfortunately, there were no buyers in Europe. Of the many reasons for this NFL failure, some reasons stand out. There is already a sport that has captured the imagination worldwide and especially in Europe, soccer. These and other sports have already been well established in Europe and American football had significant difficulties taking root. American football is a sport that is played in isolation. No other nations in the world have the infrastructure to support this sport. American football is also a relatively expensive sport to play, because the sport requires specialized equipment. Some of the reasons why football failed in Europe are socio-cultural. For the time being, that a football league will not be established in Europe. Until something drastic happens to change the NFL’s mind to try again, it would seem that the only forays the NFL will make into Europe is to play one or two token NFL games every season in stadiums in Europe.

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History of Football in Europe

But this has not been because of the lack of trying. The NFL has attempted to popularize the sport in Europe, with the hope of having it spread to Asia and the rest of the world, for the last few decades. A Texas a & M. team in 1974 played several exhibition games against Arkansas’ Henderson State College. ( 2009) it was around this same time that the World Football League was established. This so called World League mostly consisted of franchises from the U.S. with a team from Hawaii being geographically the furthermost from the Continental U.S. The World Football League lasted no more than a season and a half. It is conceivable that the reasons for the failure of the World Football League were the same as alluded to in the first paragraph. These reasons will be detailed later in this essay. The World Football League got some attention because it tried to buy away popular players from the NFL. One of these players was Larry Csonka.

In 1991, the World League of Americal Football was established. It consisted of a complement of European teams, American teams and one Canadian team. At the end of two seasons, one European team left the league, two from the U.S. joined the Canadian Football League. The league was officially disbanded. For the WLAF, the finals was called the World Bowl. One of the reasons for the disbanding of WLAF was that the attendance was less than three million, with an average of 20,000 people attended each game. The television rights brought in revenue, but dwindling spectators and television audiences made this effort unsustainable.

In the hope of giving the league a new edge and a distinctive European identity, the WLAF was reintroduced as NFL Europe with only European teams. Several teams tried to rejuvenate their identities by changing the names of the teams, logos and advertisement set ups. But the league was still plagued by a singular crucial element: the lack of money and the lack of income. Since soccer was more popular in Europe, the rules were also changed to reflect soccer. This meant that the field goals over 50 yards were given four points instead of three in the NFL. One of the problems with NFL Europe was that the infrastructure required to host a football game was not available. Soccer grounds had to be commissioned. In several cases, the pitches did not meet regulation football sizes. For each succeeding year the league was in existence, brought a host of additional problems. In some seasons, there was a preponderance of teams from Germany. The last time it opened, NFL Europe was renamed as NLF Europa. ( 2009) Very often the league timings had to be changed to accommodate the more popular soccer leagues and the tournament that virtually brings the world to a standstill — the FIFA World Cup of Soccer.

In the U.S., the television rights were originally picked up by the U.S.A. network. This was followed by and then the Fox Sports Channel. Each network broadcast either one or two games a week, during the season. But the television ratings took a dive and never recovered.

As has been mentioned above the primary reason for the failure of NFL Europa, in all its forms over the years is that it was not a saleable commodity. The income kept reducing as did the revenues from television.

The main reasons for this are as follows:

Reciprocity and Cultural Differences

In most countries of the world, the popularity of soccer is almost like a religion. But large amounts of money are invested and made in Europe, which is the richest soccer market. Germany with the Bundeslige, England with the Premier League, Italy with Serie a and the Spanish Liga are the richest. The top players make about $30 million dollars a year. South American countries also have strong soccer leagues; but the infusion of money is not the same as in Europe. The best South American and African soccer players play in the European leagues, because of the bigger paydays.

Soccer has not found much favor in the U.S.A., except for the last decade. U.S. soccer teams have performed relatively well in recent soccer World Cup. Despite the increasing popularity of soccer in this country for women, men’s soccer has always received step sisterly treatment when compared to football (NFL), baseball (MLB), basketball (NBA) and hockey (NHL). While the Major League Soccer (MLS) is a significant step in the right direction, soccer in the United States still has a long way to go before it becomes one of the major sports in this country. Indeed, even sports like Tennis and Athletics are less favored than the big four. It has been a while before the United States has had a tennis champion. And the big money for Athletics is in Europe.

So what has the lack of popularity have to do with the lack of the popularity of football in the United States? One might surmise that just as the rest of the world, and especially Europe is unhappy with so-called American hegemony in all things political and socio-cultural, not supporting football is Europe’s way of retaliating: to wit: if you do not support the sport that we prefer, we will not support the sport that you prefer. While this reason, driven purely by emotion, might be tendentious at best, it needs to be mentioned here.

Difficulty in maintaining Football Infrastructure

Non-contact versions of football exist, but in informal situations. These include touch football and flag football. But formal football, from the Peewee leagues to the NFL requires specialized equipment. The jerseys and pants are specific to the sport as are the cleats. Helmets with visors are a must, as are shoulder pads. Depending on the position, special protective equipment is required. For example, the quarterback often wears a contraption akin to a flack jacket. A football field needs certain specifications: 100 yards in length and 50 yards in width. Goals are needed in order for the game to be played properly. The positions in football are very specialized and need a specialized body structure. Linemen are heavy set, each weighing more than 275 pounds. The wide receivers are best when lanky and well muscled. The best running backs are those who are agile and fast, but with a low center of gravity for balance. Corner backs have to have builds that are complementary to wide receivers. Corner backs tend to be shorter than receivers, but they have to be very fast runners. The strong and free safeties have to be well built. Line backers have to have a built that is between safeties and linemen.

This kind of development takes place from grade school, where young men with certain body structures are developed for certain specific positions — though depending on how a person grows and the level of skill, this is likely to change. On the other hand, any body with a modicum of athleticism can play soccer. Those possessing the built of linemen or linebackers could never play competitive soccer. Soccer requires continuous running for 90 minutes. In football, substitutions can occur at will. Iron man football is never played. Soccer players of varying height are of relatively slight built and it is not required that they are tall or short. Pele of Brazil and Diego Maradonna of Argentina, two of soccer’s greatest practitioners were relatively short. Indeed, Brazil which produces some of the most skillful artists of soccer has most of its players grow up in the slums of that developing nation kicking around cans. Soccer can be played on any sized field. Since breaking the plane of the goal line constitutes a goal, two stones placed at a distance that spans a goal mouth can be used as a goal. Soccer balls can be made of rubber or leather; to develop soccer skills a regular ball is not required. For a European nation to develop into a football playing or football loving nation, the country has to develop the sport at the grassroots. It seems to be too much effort for countries that already have an established interest in several different sports.

The sports that come close to football are rugby, which is played in Europe and many other parts of the world and Australian Rules football, otherwise known as footie. Both sports require far less infrastructure than football. Only a specific kind of ball is required. Both rugby and footie does not use specialized protective equipment. Most other countries also play basketball, the European nations play hockey and a few nations even play baseball. But none of these sports require the specialized infrastructure of football.

Quality of Players

In the creation of the WLAF, World Football League, and persisting with NFL Europe and NFL Europa, NFL was trying to kill the proverbial two birds with a single stone. They wanted to sell the notion of football in an attempt to make it into a world sport; the NFL was also using European football as a development league for its younger players, or players who needed a little more experience before they were ready for the NLF. The best players therefore would not be seen in action in Europe. If one were to continue “the football as a product analogy,” NLF-Europa was a substandard or defective product.

A second rate product would not even sell in the United States, home of football. Consider the ill-fated and short-lived XFL — the eXtreme Football League. XFL teams consisted of football players that could not quite make it to the NLF because they were not as good, or their best days as football players were behind them. Despite the promise of the league to have less restrictions on hitting and it would be more raw, the notion did not sell because they were not the best and therefore not as athletic, not could they hit as hard as the NLF players. There were other considerations too. One example is that the cheerleaders were required to wear skimpier (than normal) outfits, and were encouraged to date the players. In a move to appear more “extreme,” Jesse Ventura, former marine, professional wrestler and one-time governor of Minnesota started out by deriding the coach of one of the teams during the broadcast of the opening game in the XFL. These considerations not withstanding, the XFL was cancelled simply because people were getting a substandard version of the NFL.

Arena football has a different model. The field is half the size of a regulation NFL field. A field can be constructed indoors. And the high scoring keeps the spectators interested, especially the diehard football fans (and XFL was not good enough to even keep those fans). Despite that, as a business model Arena footballs hold on the viewing audience is tenuous at best, and one can never be sure if it will be continued from season to season.

Consider soccer in Europe. The European leagues play with only the best players in the world. These players come from Europe, South and Central America, Africa and Asia. The best players are always on display, so much that even international players become household names (garnering much support) in the country and league in which they play. As has been mentioned previously in this essay, since the African and South American leagues are not wealthy, the world’s best players from those parts play in Europe. These soccer leagues are therefore representative of the best in the world. Each club within the leagues is so ripe with talent, that on any given day, a club team might easily beat the soccer team of a nation. Certainly, American football with its second string talent cannot match this quality.

A Possible Model

An interesting experiment that is taking place, which might provide a model for American football, is the Indian Premier League. This is a cricket league that is based on the England’s Premier Soccer League. IPL is popular because it is run in part by the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI), the richest cricketing body in the world. Each team consists of half of the world’s best cricketers and the rest of the players are used to develop local talent. Since very few nations play cricket, in cricket playing nations, all international players are household names. This example is used in this essay not to compare cricket with American football. But the IPL situation for 2009 is relevant to the theme of this essay. In 2009, because the IPL schedule conflicted with India’s general elections, it was initially suggested that the IPL 2009 be cancelled, which would have set all the efforts of the BCCI back. To combat this, the BCCI decided to host the month long tournament in South Africa. (HIndustan 2009) From a demographic standpoint, few nations are as separated as India and South Africa; but the experts have all agreed that the tournament is bound to be a success. The reasons are simple. The television rights will bring in revenues, because the populous Indian nation will be glued to its collective television set. South Africa is a cricketing nation and there is sufficient interest in that country and support for cricket. There is homogeneity within teams of the IPL, because all teams contain players that are household names everywhere. It is conceivable that the IPL could have been held in any of the top-level cricket playing nations: England, South Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and still be successful.


As a contrast, replace the word “cricket” with the phrase “American Football” and replace the words “South Africa” with any European nation. It is very easy to see why the IPL is likely to be successful, but past and future attempts at bringing American football to a nation in Europe is likely to fail.

References> “American Football History.” 2009. April 10, 2009. <.

HIndustan. “Ipl Moves to Sa, but What About ‘City Loyalties’?” Johannesburg, South Africa, 2009. Hindustan Times. April 10, 2009. . “The Original World League of American Football.” 2009. April 10, 2009. .

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