NFL Europa failed to produce players, profits

Once viewed as a way to expand the NFL globally and develop players, NFL Europa simply couldn't fulfill expectations, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: June 29, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Having hemorrhaged red ink for a 15th straight year, NFL Europa's negative cash flow could not be staunched with just a tourniquet.

And so despite a relatively strong spring in terms of attendance, including a championship game that drew more than 48,000 last weekend, the NFL-subsidized experiment to export this country's most passionate pastime overseas and carve out new revenue streams ended unceremoniously.

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There had been rampant reports in recent days that NFL owners -- weary of pouring money and resources into a venture that has produced no profits and, almost as significant, few players of consequence over the past several seasons -- were prepared to pull the plug.

And, Friday morning, that's exactly what happened.

Commissioner Roger Goodell traveled to Germany earlier this week, and the suspicion was that he didn't make the trip just to sample wiener schnitzel or because he yearned for a hale, hearty lager. Nope, the guy dubbed "The New Sheriff" by Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, because of his emphasis on player conduct and harsher sanctions for those who flout league policy off the field, was traveling as The Hanging Judge, ready to render NFL Europa to the gallows.

Too bad, because the notion of the NFL in Europe -- the brainchild of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- wasn't necessarily flawed. In application, however, NFL Europa gained some warts, particularly in the past few seasons. There are no plans currently on the drawing board, NFL sources told ESPN.com, to replace NFL Europa with any kind of developmental-style league in the United States.

Recently, the European league became far less a laboratory for player development and more an exercise in amassing exemptions for NFL summer training camps. Teams that allocated players to NFL Europa received exemptions that permitted them to bring more guys to training camp every July, and to keep them around longer. And coaches and personnel people love having lots of sweaty bodies, even those with barely a pulse and who serve as little more than camp fodder, on the field in the summer.

Outside of a few well-intentioned NFL executives such as Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson, who championed the cause of NFL Europa, there weren't many team officials who adhered to the original intent anymore. Essentially, NFL Europa became a legal conduit for stashing players, one that finally outlived its usefulness.

And outspent its budget.

"From a football standpoint, I think it pays for itself," said Peterson to Bloomberg News Services this week. "The money we put into the NFL Europa league is well worth the investment, because we are not only improving the quality of our game at the NFL level, but we're developing players who sometimes do become stars in our league."

Nice sentiments from a man whose support for NFL Europa has been admirable through the years, but a bit of hyperbole, because the springtime league didn't even occasionally build NFL stars anymore.

For years, the NFL hung its hat on the fact quarterbacks such as two-time MVP Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme, who led Carolina to a Super Bowl, earned their stripes in Europe and gained valuable playing time they might not have logged otherwise.

But Warner played in Amsterdam in 1998. Now, the city no longer has a football team. Having abandoned London and Barcelona as well, NFL Europa compressed into a league in which five of the six franchises operated in Germany. Delhomme was in Frankfurt in 1999.

"I cut my teeth there and got to play a lot there, so I learned a lot," Delhomme told The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette this week. "To me, it's a quarterback's league. That's what I believe. That's what I believe it was made for, to allow young quarterbacks to play and grow."

True enough, young quarterbacks did get valuable playing time in NFL Europa, but they stopped growing into NFL starters long ago.

Consider this cold, hard truth: The best player in NFL Europa this spring, journeyman quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, is on the Chicago Bears' roster, his fifth team since coming into the NFL in 2002. A guy who we've always liked and felt might have a decent NFL future, O'Sullivan lit things up for the Frankfurt Galaxy this spring. And what, realistically, did that merit him? Basically a chance for O'Sullivan, who has appeared in but one NFL regular-season game and has yet to register an official pass attempt, to compete for the No. 3 spot on Chicago's depth chart this summer.

The fact is that the league that spawned so many names for itself in the past decade and a half -- the World League of American Football begat the World League, which became the NFL Europe League and then, finally, NFL Europa this year -- simply stopped producing players with even scant name recognition.

Most head coaches in the NFL prefer now to have their players participating in their own offseason conditioning programs, rather than several thousand miles away and under the tutelage of another staff. So a lot of the players allocated to Europe weren't even fringe guys. They were, frankly, bodies NFL teams could qualify for roster exemptions. And so the spirit of the NFL-in-Europe concept was eroded.

Truth be told, over the past four or five years, the biggest advantage to having the European league was that the NFL could use it as a testing ground of sorts. Coaching interns, novices trying to get some experience and willing to spend four months abroad to do so, comprised many of the football staffs. The NFL used NFL Europa to groom game officials. And when the NFL's powerful competition committee wanted to sample a potential rule change, to see how it affected the game in application instead of theory, it could tinker with those changes by enacting them in NFL Europa first.

It's those ancillary elements, typically overlooked by the public, that might be more missed than the springtime league itself.

Published reports pegged the cost of operating NFL Europa this spring at about $500,000 for each NFL team. That might not seem like much, especially when the NFL is generating $6 billion in annual revenues, but the captains of industry who own NFL franchises didn't get rich by keeping endeavors of diminishing returns on life support. Heck, banished defensive tackle Tank Johnson, suspended by Goodell and then released by the Chicago Bears earlier this week, was earning only $510,000 in base salary for 2007.

Instead of writing a check to the league office to float the European concept for another year, NFL owners would rather invest the money in a real, live body that might help them win a couple games.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.

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