NFL Europe is one of those “Oh, right!” things in sports history. Without prompting, you probably wouldn’t easily remember it existed.
The league lasted a surprisingly long time for something that never really caught on outside of a relatively small pocket of fans. It went from 1991-2007, with no football played two of those years. Did you remember it lasted that long? There is no real reason to remember it, outside of “Kurt Warner played for the Amsterdam Admirals!” mentions or if you owned some of those snazzy Pro Set cards from the early 1990s.
Maybe you remember the league better from its first name, the World League of American Football (and the unfortunate WLAF acronym). Then it became the World League, which later became NFL Europe, which then became NFL Europa.
The league was successful in some ways, and not so much in others.
NFL Europe reportedly lost about $30 million a season, according to the New York Times. With the insatiable appetite for the NFL, it seems odd there has never been a successful spring league or a viable minor league (major college football of course is the real minor league, which the NFL make sure stays strong through the unfair rule that a player needs to be three years removed from high school to get drafted). The USFL failed. The XFL didn’t work. When the World League started it included American teams, but after a couple seasons of that, it was clear that the WLAF wasn’t catching on in the United States. After a two-year hiatus, the league re-emerged in 1995 with only European teams.
And the league did help develop some players who went on to have fine NFL careers. Warner is probably the best example, though Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri also established himself in Europe. Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson, James Harrison, La’Roi Glover and Brian Waters are a few of the other players who graduated from NFL Europe and had nice NFL careers. Imagine NFL history without some of those guys.
Maybe the most important legacy of NFL Europe is as a stepping stone to the NFL International Series. Some NFL Europe teams did fairly well in attendance, showing that American football could work there. When the NFL announced it was shuttering the league, the main reason given was that the NFL wanted to shift the focus to its own regular-season games being held overseas. The NFL has held at least one regular-season game at London’s Wembley Stadium in each season since 2007. The Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game on Sunday will be the 13th game as part of the NFL International Series. The NFL announced earlier this year that it has extended the ability to play regular-season games outside the United States through 2025, and some of those games could go to countries other than England. The Jaguars agreed on Thursday to play at least one game at London’s Wembley Stadium through at least 2020. The 15 seasons of NFL Europe certainly played some role in how the International Series has grown. The NFL saw that there were fans in Europe who enjoyed its league, and the fans there got a taste for the sport.
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While NFL Europe never blew up, it had its moments for those who participated or watched. The Frankfurt Galaxy became the most successful franchise, winning four World Bowls and appearing in four others before the league was ended. The Berlin Thunder won three titles, and the Rhein Fire won a couple. Stan Gelbaugh was the league’s all-time leading passer, Siran Stacy was the all-time leading rusher and Mario Bailey was the all-time leader in receiving yards (h/t to Total Football Stats). Hamburg Sea Devils quarterback Casey Bramlet was the final World Bowl MVP.
NFL Europe/WLAF/World League/NFL Europa hung around the fringes of the American sporting world, never getting much attention here. But it definitely has a legacy. Who knows, without it, there might not be a game in London on Sunday.
More on the Bills-Jaguars game in London this Sunday:
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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!
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