The First Time America Tried to Sell Football to Futbol Fans
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes you need to have a ball to build a brand.
The Waldstadion in Frankfurt, Germany, has a vivid history as the home of Eintracht Frankfurt’s soccer club since 1925. Now known as the Commerzbank-Arena, it has hosted a Day of Unity after World War II, three World Cups, including the 2011 women’s final, and superstars like Muhammad Ali and Prince on its stage. And in 1997, few on hand would forget having seen American football player turned executive Oliver Luck fall out of a helicopter.
But did they really see that? “It was a [stunt] double,” Luck clarifies. “I didn’t fall out of a helicopter. But to 40,000 people at this game, it looked like I did. I told my wife not to worry, but I think she forgot to tell the kids,” he jokes — one of whom included Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. This was just one of many NFL marketing ploys to help build its audience in Europe. Today, as the distinctly American sports league looks to expand its operations overseas and flirts with the idea of posting a permanent team in London and other European cities, it owes a lot to the groundwork laid by Luck and his fellow pioneers a couple of decades back.
[Football is] even more American than Coca-Cola, which has been around internationally forever.
The league started going international back in the 1980s, Luck says: “[Former NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle, before he retired, was the one who convinced the owners to start a European operation — not just to play the game but how to merchandise it.” Over the years, he explains, the league has gathered loads of data on what European fans want and expect, all of which helps grow the brand.
In 1991, the NFL launched a full-fledged international league, the World League of American Football (WLAF). This helped fill three open niches at the time — expanding the fall sport to spring, giving lower-tier players a developmental league and taking American football to Europe. Luck, a former NFL quarterback with a German mother, was tapped to run the Frankfurt Galaxy — a challenge he never underestimated.
“With the exception of a small minority of folks playing the game in local leagues, the equivalent of a softball beer league, [Frankfurt fans] didn’t understand the rules,” Luck says. So he created a festive atmosphere, finding common cultural ground between America’s football pregame tailgate tradition, as detailed in The Proving Ground: A Season on the Fringe in NFL Europe, by Lars Anderson, and Germany’s outdoor festivals like Oktoberfest. The plan was simple but effective: Bring the fans in with music and beer, then teach them football. Fans could try on uniforms, snap and catch the football, even block or tackle dummies.
Luck’s plan worked. The Galaxy moved up from fourth in league attendance in 1991 to first place in five of the next six seasons. But what worked in Frankfurt wasn’t necessarily going to work in London or Barcelona, the other European cities in the WLAF. The London team released a hit record and tried to sign a prominent rugby player, which created a short-term splash. But all American companies face the same challenge in trying to crack Europe: “The Germans are different than the Spanish. The Germans have their own culture, their own history, their own idiosyncrasies,” Luck says, noting how the NFL has had to grapple not just with what works in Germany or Europe, but in each country.
The other major challenge in the 1990s was travel. The Galaxy opened the season at home against London, then traveled to San Antonio, New Jersey and Sacramento, before returning home to Frankfurt to face the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks. WLAF players traveled on commercial airlines back then, cramming their large frames into economy seats — not exactly ideal for playing at their best.
Luck and the Galaxy managed to outlast the WLAF in Frankfurt. After two seasons, the NFL shelved the league, and it restarted in 1995 as a Europe-only league, later called NFL Europe, with Frankfurt winning the World Bowl championship that year and three more times. Luck served as league president before moving back to the USA, where he has served as president and general manager of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, athletics director at West Virginia University (his alma mater) and now executive vice president of regulatory affairs for the NCAA.
Meanwhile, the NFL has been making strides toward a permanent presence in Europe. For nearly a decade, the league has played between one and four regular-season games in London’s Wembley Stadium. Many of those games include the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose owner, Shahid Khan, also owns London’s Fulham soccer club. Could these games lay the groundwork for a permanent team across the pond?
Despite his long tenure in Europe, Luck doesn’t want to give unsolicited advice to the NFL on its continental ambitions. “There is a substantial interest,” Luck says, but he’s not so sure there’s enough to have one team in London or a division in Europe. The logistics, Luck says, can be overcome. But just as it was in the 1990s, making European expansion work is still a question of selling the sport. “[Football is] even more American than Coca-Cola, which has been around internationally forever,” Luck says.