Saturday, June 30, 2007

Farewell to NFL Europe

After a decade and a half, the NFL has finally given up on its minor league, NFL Europe, and pulled the plug. What started out as a spring league for those die hard football fans who wanted to see genuine professional football had morphed into a late night, low quality product that even the NFL was ashamed to show on its own network. Thus, we bid a fond farewell to NFL Europe.

It started as the WLAF: World League of American Football. A strange combination of teams: half in North America in non-NFL cities like San Antonio (Go Riders!) and Montreal (Mean Machine!), with stalwarts of spring leagues (Birmingham, Orlando). The other half were in Europe: the London Monarchs, Frankfurt Galaxy, and Barcelona Dragons, for instance. Quality was good: supplemental NFL players, all trying to make teams, with quality coaches (Jack Bicknell, former Boston College head coach, and Doug Flutie's mentor, coached the Dragons), but it was so odd to have this spread out league, it never quite caught on.

After a couple of years, the NFL retooled, and made the league the World League, and headed to Europe only. There was a bit of fan base; the Monarchs continued to thrive, for instance. And the league started to pay dividends: Kurt Warner, 2 time NFL MVP, came out of the World League, as did Brad Johnson (starting QB for so many teams), as well as Mr. Clutch himself, Adam Vinitieri - he's only got 4, yes 4, Superbowl rings, as well as being the greatest clutch kicker of all time.

After a few more years, the league was shut and relaunched as NFL Europe. The NFL really tried this time: including local players on all teams, going to cities that were sports strongholds but alien to Americans (Hamburg? Cologne?). They invested in showing the games on their fledgling TV network, and even tried current and former NFL players as announcers. Still, the detached nature of it, as well as the clearly empty stadiums and their odd effect on the game made this league's future clear.

I've been a staunch proponent of a minor league for football; using a college for this is just bizarre to me, and a crapshoot. While the rise of Warner is frequently cited as a success story, the same could be said about the Arena League (which the NFL invested in and many NFL players own teams), where Warner played (Go Barnstormers!). It's clear there is a needs and a niche for this time of the year and this product; let's hope Arena Football can continue to fill it, as the last vestiges of NFL spring football fade into memory.

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