American football is set to make its triumphant return to Europe in the European League of Football. That’s right — the ELF. Thirty years after the inaugural season of the NFL-owned World League of American Football, which hasn’t been operational since 2007, ELF will launch June 19 with eight teams, most of which are based in Germany.
The NFL and Germany seem to be on a collision course of some kind. How it plays out, no one yet seems sure. The NFL loves the thought of being a global game with a global audience, and has continued to introduce more games internationally. Prior to COVID, the NFL had played four games in London in 2019, with two games scheduled to be played there this year. Just two days ago, the NFL announced the launch of a process to identify a partner city for regular-season games in Germany.
I know, there’s a lot of acronyms in this article, but try to stay with me. The WLAF launched in 1990, with 10 teams across the United States, Canada, and Europe. It produced some eventual NFL legends, like Kurt Warner and Adam Vinatieri. The first World Bowl took place today, June 13, 30 years ago in 1991. The London Monarchs blanked the Barcelona Dragons, 21-0, in front of just over 61,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Current Miami Dolphins special teams coordinator Danny Crossman captained the Monarchs and was named the game’s MVP. Ex-Bills/Cards/Seahawks quarterback Stan Gelbaugh won the inaugural season’s Offensive Most Valuable Player award helming London.
After the following season’s World Bowl, won by — of all teams for a “European” league — the awesomely-outfitted Sacramento Surge, NFL owners suspended WLAF operations. It returned from 1995-97 as an all-European operation, and in 1998 rebranded as NFL Europe. The league disbanded again, seemingly for good, in 2007.
So, now it looks like the NFL wants to expand its international series to include games in Germany, while the ELF is set to kick off with eight teams in the country. With permission from the NFL, Hamburg and Frankfurt were able to obtain the naming rights of the old WLAF franchises — the Hamburg Sea Devils and Frankfurt Galaxy. The Barcelona Dragons are also back, and Stuttgart’s team will reboot the Surge moniker from Sacramento.
“The ELF is managed by a professional franchise system and we are convinced that the time is right for a top European league. The interest in American Football is growing from year to year, especially in Germany. We offer fans a highly attractive product during the NFL-free period,” ELF CEO Zeljko Karajica said.
While the league is starting with eight teams, the plan is to expand to 20 teams from 10 countries, with the ELF’s goal to build a relationship with the NFL.
“Playing by NFL rules gives us the opportunity to put a more exciting product onto the gridiron, but also opens up the possibility to look for a close alliance to the NFL in regards to player and referee development,“ Patrick Esume, ELF Commissioner, said.
The NFL did not return a request for comment.
While the ELF wants to be buddy-buddy with the NFL, it’s fair to wonder if the NFL feels the same way. After all, another professional football league starting in a market that they are attempting to attract more of an audience in, might be seen more as a potential rival than an ally.
The ELF and how Europe embraces it and the game of football will be a story worth monitoring. Maybe, just maybe, a league that poses an actual alternative to the NFL’s international dominance will emerge.