Football's drive to gain yardage in Europe
BERLIN — There are too many golfers in the city," Berlin's subway billboards oddly declared this spring.
Farther down, it became clear who was after the plaid-clad duffers: "Football is coming to town."
Promoters of the Berlin Thunder, the newest sports team in the German capital, are trying to score a place in its competitive sports arena.
Their flier, a boggling melange of German and English, promises a "power party" - a sort of artificial tailgate party - before the kickoff, plus fun, action, and of course, cheerleaders.
"We've made a complete event out of the game," says Roman Motzkus, team spokesman and a German former receiver.
Playing to German fascination with American culture, football games in the NFL Europe League are accompanied by hot dogs, popcorn, and even the US national anthem.
Although there are national leagues as well, the NFL Europe League consists of six teams: The Scottish Claymores, Barcelona Dragons, Amsterdam Admirals, and three German teams.
Founded as the World League in 1991, it originally was composed of 10 teams on both sides of the Atlantic. When the venture flopped, it was recast as the NFL Europe last year with the US National Football League (NFL) owning 51 percent, and Fox television the other 49 percent.
The composition of the Berlin Thunder reflects this overwhelming American influence. Of 43 players, only eight are German. There are 35 Americans, most of them sent over from the NFL.
Similarly, the coaches and support staff are American; only the cheerleading squad has been recruited from local talent.
Axel Kruse, formerly a Berlin soccer star and now the team's kicker, is intended to act as an ambassador to a sports culture that can't tell the difference between a tight end and the end zone.
NFL Europe marketers, however, have high hopes for pro-American Berlin. After the London Monarchs folded because of poor attendance in the revamped league's first season last year, the Thunder was founded in its place. Currently the team trails the league with a record of 1-4.
From the reaction of spectators at a game last weekend, however, football may face an uphill battle here.
"If the Berlin soccer team played as bad as these guys, nobody would go," says student Marcus Hartmann, after watching his first football game.
"I went out of curiosity and boredom," he says. "Football is a trend sport. I don't think it will succeed like soccer."
Despite the difficulty of breaking into a continent obsessed with soccer, the NFL Europe's two other German teams, Dsseldorf's Rhein Fire and the Frankfurt Galaxy, now draw the largest crowds of any other sports teams in their respective hometowns. The Galaxy attracts more than 30,000 spectators for home games.
"If Dsseldorf and Frankfurt can get it going, then it's possible here, too," says Wes Chandler, the Thunder's head coach and a former receiver for several NFL teams. In his seventh coaching season in Europe, Mr. Chandler remembers that interest in football has only built slowly here.
AT THE Thunder's first game in Berlin last month - played in a stadium that once was home to a soccer team sponsored by the East German secret police - Chandler says he "wondered if the people in the stands really understood what was going on."
Mr. Motzkus, the team's public-relations chief, confesses that "there's still the prejudice that football is just 22 guys running around on a field knocking in one anothers' heads."
While football fans in the US may appreciate the tactical nuances of the sport, he says, Europeans are drawn by its entertainment value. "To love this sport, I think you need some kind of relationship to America," says Motzkus. "It certainly makes it easier."
Andrei Markovits, a political scientist and culture critic at the University of California, Santa Cruz, agrees up to a point. He attributes the success of football in Dsseldorf and Frankfurt to the cities' international outlook gained through banking and finance.
Fans who attend these games, says Mr. Markovits, are "upper-middle-class yuppies who want a nice afternoon of Americana. They're probably Germans who travel to the States and have lived there."
Yet Markovits, who has just completed a book on which factors determine a country's dominant sports cultures, argues that a sport cannot simply be imposed on a society but must evolve gradually.
"Some NFL marketing guys think [football] is transferable like food or music," he says. "It's a nice diversion; people will go; end of story. It's like going to the circus."
On the other hand, basketball is a bigger success in Europe, Markovits says, because it has existed long enough to put down roots.
And Markovits sees another purpose for the league - to provide US players with an off-season practice ground.
But that's no secret: The Oakland Raiders are currently testing three quarterbacks in Europe this season. After all, the slogan of NFL Europe is "See the stars of tomorrow today."