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NFL Europe


All but one of the Big Four sports leagues in North America has a minor league or farm program. The MLB has MiLB, the NHL has the AHL and ECHL, and the NBA has the G League. The only one missing is the National Football League. You would think that one of the most popular sports in the US would have some professional development program. Well, it once did. For almost twenty years, the NFL had a developmental league, The NFL Europe League, or NFL Europe, for short. 

Creation and Background History

Starting around the 1970s, a wave of start-up leagues were founded, with minimal success with a few exceptions. Many leagues attempted to replicate the American Football League’s success and merge with the NFL, most notably the World Football League and the United States Football League, while others attempted to fashion themselves as a minor league program. All relatively ended with the same themes; Poor Interest from Fans, Media, or the NFL, Financial Issues, and generally not having eye-catching talent.

In the late 1980s, a plan for a new league was started by several NFL executives. The World League of American Football was formed in 1989, with approval and backing from the NFL and an approximate 1991 date for the inaugural season. The league would act as a development program for the NFL, with the season taking place from March through May and the championship “World Bowl” in early June. The league would act as a way to expand the game of American Football outside of the US, with teams in London, Barcelona, Frankfurt, and Montreal. There were also negotiations to have franchises in Moscow and Tokyo.

American franchises were planted in cities with little Football or Professional Sports experience, such as Sacramento, Birmingham, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Orlando. The league was also used as a lab rat for potential new league rules. A distance-based field goal system, more International player involvement, Two-point conversions, and one-way radios in helmets were all used in the WLAF, with the latter two both being implemented in the NFL in 1994.

The league had an okay inaugural season, with the London Monarchs winning 21-0 against the Barcelona Dragons. The league’s cracks were already showing, as it lost almost $5 Million, had gone through three commissioners in its four years of existence, and had poor TV ratings in the US and Canada. Most of that money lost came from the American franchises, as the league was received spectacularly overseas. Many chalked this up to American fans not wanting to pay a hefty price to watch practice squad leftovers or in cities like New York or Sacramento, where a professional football team was already close.

The league had an average attendance of 25,361, with the London Monarchs leading the league with an average of 40,481 fans per game. The league returned in 1992, with the only significant change being the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks folding and being replaced with the Ohio Glory.

In its second season, the league came out of its honeymoon phase and drew in less attention, only averaging about 23,620 in attendance over the ten-week regular season. At the end of the season, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the league would suspend operations for the 1993 season, with a potential European-only 1994 comeback. This may have been a way to take off the burden of having “unwanted teams” in America. All of the American franchises dissolved, except for the San Antonio Riders and 1992 Champion Sacramento Surge, who joined the CFL as a part of the league’s United States Expansion experiment, as the San Antonio Texans and Sacramento Gold Rush, respectively.


Rebirth and Rebranding as NFL Europe

The league was brought back in 1995 after a two-year hiatus, with, as promised, only European franchises. The league also added three new expansion franchises, the Rhein Fire, Scottish Claymores, and Amsterdam Admirals. San Diego Chargers punter, Darren Bennett, was named to the 1995 Pro-Bowl, shortly after being assigned to the Amsterdam Admirals and leading the league in net punt average, becoming the first former WLAF, as well as Australian-born player to make the Pro-Bowl.

Surprisingly, the league’s average attendance dipped below 20,000 in 1995, against Paul Tagliabue’s European-only league theory. Teams also began signing more international players, primarily former Soccer and rugby players. In 1998, The league was rebranded as the NFL Europe. That same season, The St. Louis Rams sent former Arena Football quarterback Kurt Warner to the Amsterdam Admirals to develop during the Spring.

Warner led the league in Touchdowns and Passing yards before being called up. A year later, Warner would lead the Rams to a Super Bowl bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans and win Most Valuable Player. Warner would become the most successful player to come out of the NFL Europe. Warner’s backup on the Admirals was Jake Delhomme. He won the 1999 World Bowl with the Frankfurt Galaxy before signing with the Carolina Panthers in 2003. He eventually helped them to a Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance and was named to the 2005 Pro-Bowl.

While the league did have some notable names, it was overwhelmingly unstable. Franchises like the Monarchs, Dragons, and Claymores relocated and changed ownership several times during their franchise’s history. The 2006 Season was pushed back to not conflict with the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Hamburg’s stadiums were all used during the tournament. The most spotlight the league ever received would be featured in the Madden NFL video game franchise from the 2001 to 2007 Installments of the series.


NFL Europa and Legacy

In 2006, the league rebranded as NFL Europa to reflect the name of Europe in most European leagues. A week after the Hamburg Sea Devils defeated the Frankfurt Galaxy 37-28 in World Bowl XV, the NFL announced that the league would dissolve and not return for the 2008 Season. Newly appointed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revealed the main cause behind the league’s dispersal was that the league was losing up to $30 Million a year. The NFL was backing and paying for a glorified practice squad league for almost 18 years and couldn’t take it. Today, the NFL still doesn’t have a minor league program like NFL Europe, however, leagues such as The Spring League, XFL, USFL, and CFL have acted as pathways to the NFL for players who weren’t able to make it to the top.

Today, the NFL Europe lives on as the European League of Football, a league similar to the NFL Europe, yet more akin to the 2020 XFL. In 2020, The ELF reached an agreement with the NFL to use the names of the Sea Devils, Thunder, Galaxy, Fire, Centurions, Dragons, and the Surge from the WLAF for franchises. Besides the franchise names, the league has no connection to the NFL or NFL Europe. The NFL is still in touch with playing in Europe as, starting in 2007, The League played at least one game a year in international markets, primarily Mexico and The United Kingdom. There have also been several talks throughout the last decade of the NFL Expanding, or moving a franchise, specifically the Jacksonville Jaguars, to London.

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Lucas Christopherson is an 11th grader at FGHS who has 2 dogs.

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