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Sunday, July 8, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Closing of NFL Europa sad move for Japanese players


What began auspiciously long ago ended in profound disappointment recently when the NFL decided to close its six-team European circuit.

Jack Gallagher

After a 16-year experiment, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL team owners shuttered NFL Europa (NFL Europe in past seasons) and along with it the hopes of globalizing American football in a big-time manner for the foreseeable future.

The decision was pawned off on the NFL's intent to begin playing regular-season games outside North America and the fact that the NFLE was continuing to lose money — reportedly to the tune of around $30 million a year.

"A foundation of American football fans in key European markets has been created and the time is right to shift our strategy," Goodell said in a statement, while noting the decision was strictly a business one.

The NFLE — or what was left of it — began as the World League of American Football in 1991 with 10 teams in five countries. Franchises were based in London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Montreal, New York, Orlando, San Antonio, Sacramento, Birmingham, Ala., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

I was fortunate to have been involved at the outset of the WLAF as the director of public relations for the London Monarchs, the league's flagship franchise, where I worked for the first two seasons.

Those were exciting times, as there was great optimism that interest in the sport was sustainable on some level in international markets over the long term.

The Monarchs went 11-1 that first season and won the inaugural World Bowl before a crowd of more than 61,000 at Wembley Stadium, where the team averaged more than 40,000 fans per game. On the surface it seemed as if it was the start of something big, but almost from the moment the final gun sounded on the first title game, the league's troubles began.

News photo
Noriaki Kinoshita, seen here playing for the Amsterdam Admirals this season, was invited to training camp by the Atlanta Falcons after gaining exposure in NFL Europa, which folded June 29 after 16 years. KYODO PHOTO

The NFL team owners, always a curious bunch, began hedging their bets on the WLAF over money concerns.

It would seem logical to deduce that starting a pro football league in five countries, with players primarily from one (the United States), would take time and patience, as well as a significant investment.

Each NFL team was asked to contribute $500,000 annually — a drop in the bucket even in those days — toward the development of the WLAF. With this money, plus television contracts with both ABC and the USA Network, the league appeared to be starting off on the right foot.

However, the NFL team owners, apparently lacking any understanding of the economics of starting a new business, began to complain loud and long about the losses the league had incurred in its first season and tried to shut it down.

Guys like Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who once famously proclaimed, "I go to bed thinking about making money and I wake up thinking about making money," clearly cared nothing about developing the NFL internationally.

In fact, after that first season, when rumors surfaced that the WLAF might be shut down, Jones was quoted as saying, " . . . they were looking for a way to make the murder more palatable."

So, you see, this league was doomed from the start.

I have often asked myself, "Why start a new endeavor like this and then give it lukewarm support and a halfhearted effort?"

It is a question that remains unanswered to this day.

The biggest problem was that WLAF and later NFLE never had a clear mission.

Was the goal to try to grow the game overseas?

Or develop players for the NFL?

Or make money while doing both?

The league played the 1992 season and then was "suspended" for two years, before returning in 1995 with a six-team, all-European team format, which it retained through this year.

But it was never the same. The European fans are sophisticated, and taking something away, then bringing it back and trying to insist it was better was a bad idea.

In England, where soccer was going through a down period when the WLAF started, a little thing called the Premier League began in August of 1992, and commenced a climb that would make it the most popular pro sports league in the world.

At the same time, American football became an afterthought in the UK and Europe. When the league returned, attendance dwindled, teams moved and at the end five of the six teams were in Germany.

The sad part of this whole scenario is that in countries like Japan, which has seen 32 players participate in the NFLE since 1996, including the likes of Masafumi Kawaguchi, Masato Itai, Nachi Abe and Noriaki Kinoshita, the path to playing the game at the highest level is now severely obstructed.

Kinoshita, who was invited to training camp by the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday after being named to the All-NFLE team two straight years as a special teams player, is a case in point. He is getting his shot to become the first Japanese to play in the NFL because of the exposure he received while playing for the Amsterdam Admirals.

From this point on it is going to be very difficult for a Japanese player to go from a tryout camp straight into an NFL training camp and on to a team roster. With the NFLE there was the chance that a player could develop with game experience — like Kinoshita did — against guys who were already in the NFL and someday have a chance to make it all the way.

"It is disappointing that the NFL Europa folded before the essence of American football, one of the greatest sports of the world, is understood in Europe," said Kawaguchi, who played seven seasons for the Admirals, when contacted about the move. "The NFL Europa was one of the gateways for Japanese football players advancing to the NFL."

The NFLE, had it been organized and run with proper commitment from the start, could have served two purposes — to provide fans in international markets with their own teams, and develop talent from those countries who could play at home and maybe some day in the NFL.

While the NFL won't be a part of realizing this vision, my feeling is that within a year or two another group will try to bring American pro football to some major markets in Europe.

Next time around it is imperative that the ownership be local, the goal be clear, and the message not be convoluted. Those involved should love the game first, and have deep enough pockets to worry about the bottom line a distant second.



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