Kicking around America’s last great sporting export

Hup, hup, hup! Ahead of this month’s annual NFL showdown at Wembley, ANTON RIPPON calls the plays on the ups and downs of American football outside America

The now annual regular-season NFL game staged at Wembley is a guaranteed 80,000-plus sell-out for eager European fans

In most countries “football” means kicking a ball, what Americans call “soccer”. And what Americans call “football”, the rest of the world has to qualify as American football or, sometimes, gridiron. Or, occasionally, simply N.F.L.

Although 23 million play the game at amateur or semi-pro level worldwide, football (the American version) has never found a major professional foothold on the rest of the planet, where the spherical ball holds sway.

It hasn’t been for the want of trying. And when, in June 2007, a crowd of 48,125 watched Hamburg Sea Devils beat Frankfurt Galaxy in the NFL Europa title decider in Frankfurt, you might have been forgiven for believing that football American-style had followed in the footsteps of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and finally conquered the world.

But, a week later, NFL Europa folded. Despite several rebrandings, much tinkering with the league format – and even with the rules of the game – American football’s European adventire was reportedly losing $30 million dollars a season.

When it started out in 1991, the World League of American Football (WLAF) was a mix of US, Canadian and European teams. Average attendances were around 25,000, but after only two seasons the competition was suspended.

It resumed after two years, its title shortened to the World League. Another two years passed and in 1997 it became NFL Europe with franchises in Britain, Germany, Netherlands and Spain. Alas, the market outside Germany didn’t live up to expectations. In September 2006 came another change of name: NFL Europa. But now the six-team league could almost have been called NFL Deutschland: all but one (in the Netherlands) was based in Germany. At the end of the season, NFL called time on the idea.

Ironically, average attendances had increased, from 18,000 to just over 20,000 in NFL Europa’s first – and swansong – season. Despite the absence of US teams, American TV stations – variously, FX, Fox Sports Net and NFL Network – had shown games, ether live or on tape delay, until the European dream finally died.

This month's NFL showdown at Wembley will be between Chicago and Tampa Bay

Why did it die? Had the lack of continuous play deterred European fans initially keen to try a new sport? Was it that the game lacks the simplicity of soccer? Perhaps it was simply that there were no local heroes; just as pro soccer struggles to establish itself in America because there is no tradition for the game, so there are no kids routinely throwing around an NFL ball in the streets of London, Paris and Rome.

Maybe the competition’s demise was because the football just wasn’t as good as the real thing. NFL Europe/Europa players (whose salaries and expenses were assumed by the league) were “developmental” performers. The world had long been used to seeing top NFL players on their television screens. By comparison the game in Europe was regarded as minor league.

Which may explain why, when the real show comes to town, interest peaks. Each season from 2005, the NFL International series has seen a regular season game played outside the US. The first, between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City, attracted a record NFL crowd of more than 103,000.

When the games moved to Wembley Stadium, 80,000-plus loyal NFL fans have snapped up tickets in record time. In October 2010, when the 49ers (who even brought their own cheerleaders and marching drummers) beat the Denver Broncos 24-16, CBS provided live television coverage to the United States.

The day before the game, an NFL fan rally was held in Trafalgar Square where more than 38,000 saw appearances from past NFL players and live music acts.

Now that a lengthy labour dispute has been resolved, the 2011 NFL Pepsi Max International Series game will feature the Chicago Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley on October 23, with the Buccaneers serving as the “home” team.

For the Bears this will mark the 25th anniversary of them playing in the first official NFL game in the UK.

The Buccaneers played a “home” game at Wembley in 2009, against the New England Patriots.

“Our past four games in London have demonstrated the tremendous passion for NFL football that exists in the UK,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We hope by staging another extraordinary game at Wembley that we can continue to grow our existing fan base and attract even more new fans.”

In fact, the game does exist outside America with that estimated 23 million playing it, albeit not as a serious spectator sport.

In 1998, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) was formed, the cornerstone of its objectives being to organise competitive international football. The inaugural IFAF world championship kicked off in Palermo in 1999 when Japan became the sport’s first world champions. Japan retained the title four years later in Frankfurt.

In 2007, the United States entered a nationally selected team for the first time and triumphed in Tokyo. A record number of 21 countries had entered the qualification process in 2007, leading to six nations competing in Japan.

In 2005, American Football made its debut at the ninth World Games in Duisburg, when Germany took the gold medal. The sport was the most watched event, attracting 18,000 spectators to the final and 28,000 fans in total.

The fourth IFAF flag football world championship – “flag football” is a largely non-contact version of the sport where instead of tackling your opponent, you remove a flag from his belt – was held in Canada in 2008, following tournaments in Austria (2002), France (2004) and South Korea (2006). IFAF has also endorsed the NFL global junior championship (1997-2007) and the NFL flag football world championship (2000-2007).

In 2003, IFAF was granted provisional member status of the General Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF, now usually known as SportAccord), becoming a full member in 2005. Five years on, supported and endorsed by the NFL Youth Football Fund and the NFL Players’ Association, one of its key goals is to earn recognition from the International Olympic Committee.

In 2007, IFAF launched a new membership development programme with the mission to strengthen the quality of the game in emerging national federations and spread interest in the sport in those countries where a domestic structure does not yet exist.

So, if the game outside the United States is still many million light years from rivaling NFL, it is alive: the IFAF comprises 57 member nations on five continents, all of which possess national federations dedicated solely to football. Or American football, as anyone but an American would call it.