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Germany Could Be The NFL’s Gateway To International Domination

  • The Chiefs host the Dolphins in the first NFL game in Frankfurt on Sunday.
  • Kansas City wants to play games in Germany every season they are eligible.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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There are no direct commercial flights from Kansas City to Germany, but the area’s football fans might push for them soon.

On Sunday, German fans of American football will get their second taste of NFL regular-season action when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Miami Dolphins in what is undoubtedly the league’s highest-profile international game to date. Both 6-2 teams are tied for the best record in the AFC, and quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa are among the MVP favorites midway through the season.

In 2022, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks treated fans in Munich to such a successful German debut that the NFL decided to play not one but two games in Frankfurt this fall. Next week, the New England Patriots will play the Indianapolis Colts. Both games sold out almost immediately this summer.

The Chiefs last played in Europe in 2015 for a matchup against the Detroit Lions in London — but the team hopes to become a particularly consistent presence in Germany. 

“We’d play [another] game there as soon as we possibly could,” Chiefs president Mark Donovan told Front Office Sports.

Kansas City has commercial rights in Germany under the NFL’s Global Markets Program, along with the Atlanta Falcons, Bucs, Carolina Panthers, and Patriots. The Chiefs are approaching $3 million spent across international marketing activities, including efforts in Mexico. Plans for the Frankfurt game include the Chiefs-themed “ChampionShip” docked on the banks of the Main River that the team expects to host more than 5,000 fans throughout the weekend.

Outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars — who have played in London every season since 2013 (outside of the pandemic-hit 2020 season) — NFL teams have not yet shown a strong desire to take up regular residence abroad. The Chiefs could buck that trend.

German Fever

Under the current 17-game scheduling system, the NFL selects teams from the conference with a ninth regular-season home game to host international games, making 2025 the next opportunity for the Chiefs to play in Germany as the home team.

“Every year we’re eligible, we’re going to be raising our hand to play,” Donovan said. “It just makes too much business sense for us.” 

The Chiefs won’t take in any ticket revenue from Sunday’s game — international gates are split among the entire league — but the team has crafted six major sponsorships with big brands like Burger King Germany and broadcaster RTL. The Chiefs have even been consulting with a group of CEOs from German companies over the past two years to learn how to best capitalize on local consumers.

After this season’s Frankfurt games, the Falcons and Panthers will be the only NFL teams with German marketing rights who haven’t yet hosted games in the country. Both teams will host the Chiefs in 2024, but Donovan doesn’t expect them to be interested in taking that matchup to Germany. 

“Because of the demand for tickets to games that we play in right now, that’s not a real good business decision,” he said.

Worldwide Ambitions

The NFL’s success in Germany shouldn’t be too surprising. During the height of the NFL Europe League in the 1990s and early 2000s, games in Germany regularly drew 50,000-plus fans. 

But other countries were slower to pick up on America’s favorite sport. “We had so many issues with just the lack of understanding of American football,” Andrew Brandt, the first general manager of the Barcelona Dragons, told FOS.

The developmental league existed from 1991 to 2007, and was also known as the World League of American Football, the World League, and NFL Europa. But by the end, the league was reportedly losing $30 million annually. The challenge, according to Brandt, was finding a balance of developing talent — Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri were two of the league’s biggest success stories — and actually making money.

NFL owners ultimately decided to fold the league and instead begin playing games in London — the first of which occurred in 2007. Sixteen years later, the NFL is making it publicly clearer than ever that further international expansion is its next big goal.

On opening night of this season, commissioner Roger Goodell said the league wanted to host more games abroad and was looking “around the world.” The two German games and three London matchups make for five games outside the U.S. in 2023.

The NFL extended its partnership with Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to host multiple games a season, and Goodell even broached the idea of a London Super Bowl. Furthermore, NFL executive vice president Peter O’Reilly announced the league was exploring Spain and Brazil as additional markets for games, as well as the possibility of Australia.

Planting Roots?

As the NFL looks for its next stomping grounds, one former executive is particularly bullish on the league’s potential.

Oliver Luck, president of NFL Europe from 1996-2000 after initially helping launch the Frankfurt Galaxy, believes the NFL could thrive in any major European city.  

“I think there would be a very similar effect, quick sellout, with more interest than I even realized,” Luck said, citing Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, and Lyon as potential options. Brandt agrees that one-off NFL games can “work pretty much anywhere.” 

But is there enough momentum for a permanent franchise in Europe, or even a division? “I don’t know if we’ll ever get there,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt remarked ahead of the Frankfurt game.

Donovan believes there needs to be even more international success to justify permanent residence. “I think you’re going to see a lot more push to have more games played internationally and really expand the number of games and the number of markets, before you’re going to see real, serious discussion about a team or a division,” he said.

Brandt says that could play out as an eight-game “home” schedule in a city like London, in which every team could play there every other season. “I still don’t believe we’re going to have a team in London anytime soon,” he said.

Anything Is Possible

In September, Goodell wouldn’t shut down the idea of a European team, but admitted competitive balance was a concern.

“Logistics can always be solved,” Luck said on the matter. “I don’t think that there are any — what I would call physical or logistical — reasons why there couldn’t be a team or an entire division in Europe.”

Either way, the NFL still has plenty of runway for international growth, Luck says, and doesn’t expect any fatigue from European fans.

The NFL hasn’t announced its slate of international games for 2024, but based on this season’s success and comments from league executives, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an increase from this season’s five matchups. The question will be which new markets the NFL enters next.

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