The World League of American Football (shortened to WLAF or World League), later renamed the NFL Europe League (NFL Europe for short) and then NFL Europa, was a professional American football league that operated between 1991 and 2007. It was backed by the National Football League (NFL), the largest league in the United States. Each season culminated with the World Bowl.
|Owner(s)||National Football League|
|No. of teams||10 (1991–1992) |
|Countries||Canada (1991–1992) |
United Kingdom (1991–2004)
United States (1991–1992)
|Hamburg Sea Devils|
|Most titles||Frankfurt Galaxy, 4|
The World League of American Football was founded in 1989 to serve as a type of spring league. Seven of the ten teams were based in North America, and the other three in Europe. This format lasted for only two seasons, and consequently there were no league games in 1993 or 1994.
The WLAF returned in 1995 with six teams, all in Europe, and then in 1998 the league was rebranded as the NFL Europe League or NFL Europe, a name that lasted until 2006. In the league's last season in 2007, the league officially changed its name to NFL Europa.
NFL Europe was an attempt to expand the game of American football to an international market outside the United States. In addition, NFL Europe served as a development league for the NFL. The league's squads were predominantly assigned by NFL teams, who wanted younger, developmental players to get additional game experience and coaching. The NFL assumed the expenses of players and coaches living in Europe. The European six-team format was maintained for 12 seasons, from 1995 to 2007, but by 2007 five teams were based in Germany. On 29 June 2007, the NFL announced the end of NFL Europa after a reported $30 million loss per season, and having multiple teams such as the inaugural league champion London Monarchs having gone defunct over the years.
A previous proposed league in the 1970s, the Intercontinental Football League, had contained many elements of the eventual all-European league. West German entrepreneur Adalbert Wetzel and sports coach Bob Kap secured the release of several NFL players to the IFL for a planned 1975 season. The IFL would have involved teams in Barcelona, Rome, West Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Istanbul, but was cancelled due to economic and political problems.
World League of American Football (WLAF)Edit
The World League of American Football was formed in 1989, by a unanimous vote of NFL owners, as a spring developmental league, the "brainchild" of commissioner Paul Tagliabue. This came after the NFL had played popular American Bowls in London's Wembley Stadium and elsewhere since 1986. Of the 28 NFL teams, 26 paid $50,000 each in startup costs for the WLAF. Team payrolls and budgets were controlled by the WLAF office but not all teams were owned by the league; in May 1992 it owned five (including Barcelona, London and Frankfurt) and partially owned three.
The WLAF was set up as a professional American football league for North America and Europe consisting of six teams from the United States, three European teams and one Canadian team. In 1991, parties in Moscow and Japan expressed an interest in additional franchises.
Teams were aligned in three divisions:
- North American West: Birmingham Fire, Sacramento Surge, San Antonio Riders
- North American East: Montreal Machine, New York/New Jersey Knights, Orlando Thunder, Raleigh–Durham Skyhawks (replaced by Ohio Glory in 1992)
- European: Barcelona Dragons, Frankfurt Galaxy, London Monarchs
The WLAF played two seasons in the spring of 1991 and 1992, with 10 teams playing a 10-game regular season culminating with the World Bowl championship game. Rules unique to WLAF included assigning increasing point value to field goals based on distance and a requirement that at least one non-American player must participate in at least every other series of downs.
New ideas were successfully tested, such as the two-point conversion rule already in use in college football and the Canadian Football League before it was adopted by the NFL in 1994. Other minor tweaks in gameplay, such as a shorter kickoff tee, were also first used in the WLAF. Several technical innovations, such as helmet-mounted cameras and one-way radios, enabling coaches to tell plays directly to quarterbacks, were also developed.
The average game attendance for the first season was 25,361, and 24,216 in the second season. The original WLAF was barely noticed in the United States, having a "minor-league or developmental image" and low TV ratings. In the cities of London, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Montreal, crowds surpassed early expectations. The Monarchs' home attendance led the league, and the 1991 World Bowl played at Wembley Stadium was attended by 61,108.
In May 1991, the Los Angeles Times's Chris Dufresne said American fans were less likely than Europeans to "shell out hard-earned dollars for games featuring roster-cut leftovers" and suggested there was a post-USFL backlash in Orlando, Birmingham and San Antonio. The WLAF lost $7 million in 1991.
The playoff format consisted of four teams: the three divisional champions, plus a wild card with the best overall non-division winning record. The two teams emerging from the WLAF semifinal playoffs met at the end of the season in the World Bowl. The first two World Bowl locations were predetermined before the season. The average WLAF salary for 10 games plus playoffs was $40,000, but some of the top players made close to $100,000.
WLAF operations were suspended after the 1992 season, as the league had lost money, and the NFL owners who were involved were not willing to invest more. However, the NFL still needed another pro football league to help their cause in the antitrust and free-agency lawsuit with the National Football League Players' Association.
The three Europe-based teams dominated in 1991, with a combined 24–6 record, while no North American team managed better than 5–5. The London Monarchs won the World Bowl. The Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks lost all 10 games and ultimately their franchise, which was moved to Ohio for 1992.
|Semifinals||World Bowl '91|
|2||New York/New Jersey Knights||26|
In 1992, fortunes changed and none of the European teams had winning seasons. Despite this, the European fans remained loyal, but the NFL owners suspended the WLAF after the season. Paul Tagliabue mentioned plans to bring it back with only European teams, possibly in 1994. British sports writer Matt Tench cited "an ambivalence on the part of the NFL owners: they wanted a spring league but did not want to create a rival to the NFL. In the end they did not create enough of a rival."
The Sacramento and San Antonio franchises left the WLAF, with their ownership groups attempting to secure franchises in the Canadian Football League in preparation for the CFL's U.S. expansion in 1993. The Sacramento Gold Miners would play in the CFL for three years, becoming the first American franchise in the league (and beginning a three-season sojourn in the U.S. for the CFL).
|Semifinals||World Bowl '92|
After 1992, the World League was suspended for two years. The spring developmental league had enough NFL support to continue, but without any North American teams. The new teams were announced in July 1994, and the third WLAF season began in April 1995. The 1995 WLAF was based entirely in Europe, and was reduced to six teams. The three existing European teams (London, Barcelona and Frankfurt) were joined by three new teams in Amsterdam (the Admirals), Düsseldorf (Rhein Fire) and Edinburgh (Scottish Claymores).
In the wake of Fox's new contract to broadcast NFL games, the network became a co-owner of the WLAF and a major financial contributor, in return for broadcasting rights. The relaunched league was sponsored by Reebok, which also manufactured team uniforms and apparel.
All six teams played in a single division. With each team playing all other teams twice (home and away), the WLAF's regular season spanned 10 games, as it had in 1991–92. Under the new format, the World Bowl championship game would match up the first-half league leader, who would host the game, and the end-of-season league leader (or runner-up, if the first-half champion also had the best overall record). This selection process was abandoned after the 1997 World Bowl.
In 1995, league attendances averaged less than 15,000.
The London Monarchs left Wembley Stadium for reasons of cost, size and availability, and the team's home games were played at Tottenham Hotspur F.C.'s White Hart Lane in the 1995 and 1996 seasons. White Hart Lane's field was only 93 yards long – nowhere near enough to hold a full 120-yard field and end zones – so the WLAF had to grant an exemption from the usual rules.
More than 100 players with World League experience played in the American NFL in 1996. Meanwhile, the WLAF signed some players who had been more famous in other leagues and sports – in 1996 the London Monarchs signed former NFL star William Perry and the Scottish Claymores' kicker was Scotland's national rugby union team captain, Gavin Hastings.
By the end of the 1997 season, there were growing concerns that WLAF markets, except Germany, were not living up to their potential. Average attendance for the Monarchs was around 10,000 in 1995–97. Radical changes were made to the two British teams and venues for the upcoming 1998 season. At a press conference in San Diego during Super Bowl XXXII weekend, the league announced that it would be rebranded as NFL Europe.
Starting in 1998, the league was known as NFL Europe. Qualification for the World Bowl championship game also changed. The two teams with the best overall record after 10 games competed in the World Bowl, to be hosted at a predetermined site. A team could no longer secure a World Bowl berth midway through the season. The change was largely attributed to the play of the eventual 1997 World Bowl champions, the Barcelona Dragons, who secured a World Bowl berth with a 4–1 first-half record and proceeded to rest players and play what some argued was low-intensity football in the second half, finishing with just a 5–5 record and third place overall in the standings.
The Scottish Claymores began to divide their schedule between Edinburgh and Glasgow's Hampden Park, having previously only played at Murrayfield. The London Monarchs became the England Monarchs, playing home games in London, Birmingham and Bristol, and switching their colors from blue, gold and red to red, white and black.
In the late 1990s, two future NFL star quarterbacks were active in the European league. Kurt Warner played for the Amsterdam Admirals in 1998, with Jake Delhomme as his backup quarterback. Delhomme played for the Frankfurt Galaxy the following season in an unorthodox two-quarterback system that also included Pat Barnes; the Galaxy won the 1999 World Bowl.
The NFL Europe era was beset by instability, but NFL Europe president Oliver Luck was "well past being concerned with the short term" and claimed attendances were less vital to revenues than before 1998. However, with attendances slumping to an average of 5,944, the England Monarchs were shut down after the 1998 season, replaced by the Berlin Thunder. In 2002, the Barcelona Dragons became an official section of FC Barcelona, adopting the name FC Barcelona Dragons. However, after only one year Barcelona dropped its sponsorship. With the team struggling financially and generating little fan support, the NFL was not interested in keeping the franchise alive, and replaced it with the Cologne Centurions for the 2004 season.
The Scottish Claymores, one of the three teams added to the league in 1995, were also discontinued in 2004, and were replaced by the Hamburg Sea Devils for the 2005 season. With this change, five of the six teams in the league's final incarnation were from Germany, with one from the Netherlands, leading some of the league's detractors to refer to it as "NFL Deutschland" or "NFL Germany", even speculating that the Admirals only remained in Amsterdam because they had won World Bowl XIII. Unsurprisingly, German teams won all seven World Bowls between 1998 and 2004.
In 2005, the total attendance at the thirty games was 568,935, and the average attendance of 18,965 was the highest since 1992. On the other hand, TV contracts were canceled when teams moved, such as the termination of the league's deal with satellite TV platform Digital+ in Spain after the demise of the Barcelona Dragons. Player salaries had gone down since the start of the WLAF, when the average was $40,000. By 2005, the salary was $18,500 for quarterbacks and $13,500 for all other positions.
In 2006, the league's schedule opened and closed one month earlier than normal because of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which was played at four of the five German stadiums that hosted NFL Europe teams. Only the LTU Arena in Düsseldorf was not chosen to host World Cup matches, and that stadium hosted the World Bowl that year.
NFL Europa and cessation of operationsEdit
On 11 September 2006, NFL Europe officially re-branded itself as NFL Europa to reflect the name of Europe in most European languages, including Dutch and German. "NFL Europe" continued to be used informally in the United States, including for the league's English-language website, nfleurope.com.
On 29 June 2007, NFL officials announced that the NFL Europa league would be disbanded, effective immediately. The announcement came less than a week after the Hamburg Sea Devils had defeated the Frankfurt Galaxy 37–28 in World Bowl XV in Frankfurt before a crowd of 48,125.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell thanked the fans for their support but said that it was time to develop a new international strategy, terming the move to fold NFL Europa the "best business decision." The league was reportedly losing about $30 million a season.
ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli wrote after the league's disbandment in 2007, "Recently, the European league became far less a laboratory for player development and more an exercise in amassing exemptions for NFL summer training camps. [...] there weren't many [NFL] team officials who adhered to the original intent anymore."
Pasquarelli also named J. T. O'Sullivan as the best 2007 NFL Europa player at a time when O'Sullivan was no higher than third on the quarterback depth chart of the Chicago Bears. According to Pasquarelli, NFL Europe and NFL Europa "simply stopped producing players with even scant name recognition", with most coaches preferring to develop their players themselves.
Various reasons were put forward for NFL Europe’s collapse and the game’s limited appeal outside North America. John Williams, director of the Center for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, cited the league's "lack of flow", with play broken up for "tactical talks and time outs", deemed "too contrived" by fans of more free-flowing sports.
The NFL announced plans for a "stronger international focus on regular-season games outside the United States." The NFL International Series began in October 2007 at Wembley Stadium, London, and continues today. The Bills Toronto Series started in 2008 but ended in 2013. However, no mainland European country has hosted any NFL games for 20 years since Germany hosted exhibition games from 1991 to 1994.
Since 2007, the most prominent intra-European competitions have been the BIG6 league, European Football League, EFAF Cup (2002–2013), the Central European Football League and EFAF European Championship. in 2021 a German group around Patrick Esume (formerly on the coaching staff of NFLE's Hamburg Sea Devils and Frankfurt Galaxy) launched a new European League of Football playing with modified NFL rules (most American Football leagues in Europe play with modified NCAA rules) and using the names of former NFL Europe teams in a licensing deal with the NFL. Similar to the latter years of NFL-Europe, the inaugural 2021 European League of Football season had 6 out of 8 teams based in Germany. Five out of the eight teams played in former NFL-Europe metro areas and used the names of prior NFL Europe teams while Stuttgart Surge re-used the nickname of Sacramento Surge of the WLAF.
|North American teams||Active|
|New York/New Jersey Knights||1991–92|
|San Antonio Riders||1991–92|
|Hamburg Sea Devils||2005–2007|
All competing teams, 1991–92:
The league existed in two forms: the 10-team transatlantic league in 1991 and 1992 and the six-team format in Europe only from 1995 to 2007.
The three European teams from 1991 to 1992, Frankfurt, Barcelona and London, were the only original teams to continue playing when the league was resurrected in 1995. By 2007, only the Frankfurt Galaxy remained of the original WLAF teams.
In this era, NFL overtime was a single quarter of sudden death, with the first team to score being the winner. A regular-season game would end in a tie if no team scored in 15 minutes. (Postseason games lasted indefinitely until one team scored.)
In WLAF/NFL Europe, however, the overtime period lasted for only 10 minutes, with a rule that each team must have the opportunity of possession at least once. Therefore, if the first team to possess the ball scored, the other would get a chance to either equalize or win the game. The winner was the team with the highest score after both teams had at least one possession. Sudden death applied if the score was even after each team had had one possession. If still tied after 10 minutes, the game ended as a tie. Only two games remained tied after overtime in WLAF/NFL Europe history: London Monarchs vs. Birmingham Fire in 1992, and Berlin Thunder at Hamburg Sea Devils in 2006. The score of both games was 17–17.
Since 2010, the NFL has applied a similar set of overtime rules, and several further tweaks were made in 2012. Starting with the 2017 season, the 15-minute overtime period was shortened to 10 minutes after gaining approval from NFL team owners.
With association football (or soccer) being the traditionally popular sport in Europe and American football a relative newcomer, the rules were changed slightly to encourage a greater element of kicking to make the game more enjoyable for soccer and rugby fans. The league did this by awarding four points to field goals of more than 50 yards, as opposed to three points in the NFL. This had the interesting side effect that a touchdown and point-after kick (seven points) could be equaled by one regular field goal (three points) along with a long field goal (four points).
In the 1995 season, for every team's home games, at least seven "local" players were required to play or appear on the bench (three locals in away games). In the years before 2006, each team was required to field at least one player of non-American extraction, called a "national" player, on every down of every other series. In 2006, the rule was changed to every series. In addition to European players, a number of Mexican and Japanese players played as national players. Until the 2004 season, kicked conversion attempts and short field goals were attempted by national players. As there are few European players who have had the chance to compete at a level comparable to that of American college football and the NFL, many, if not most, of the European players ended up as kickers.
Notable national players included Scott McCready, an English wide receiver who played some preseason games for the New England Patriots; the Claymores' wide receiver Scott Couper, who played a preseason game for the Chicago Bears; Constantin Ritzmann, a German defensive end who had played for the University of Tennessee; and Rob Hart, an English rugby player who became a placekicker and kicked barefoot.
Running back Victor Ebubedike played for the Monarchs from 1991 to 1998, becoming the first Briton to score in the World League in 1991. The Monarchs' first kicker was former Norwich City centre-half Phil Alexander. Ex-Tottenham Hotspur striker Clive Allen also kicked for the Monarchs, while fellow footballers Jesús Angoy, Manfred Burgsmüller and Silvio Diliberto kicked for the Barcelona Dragons, Rhein Fire and Amsterdam Admirals respectively.
The 1995 WLAF relaunch featured uniforms with a significantly different look from what is traditionally associated with American football. Instead of the standard large numbers centered on the front of the jersey, the team logos took precedence, with a smaller number over the right collarbone area. The Monarchs reverted to the traditional look in 1997 and the rest of the league followed a year later. The 1998 uniform designs were "thought to appeal to European tastes."
USA Network carried most of the WLAF games on Saturday and Monday nights in the 1991 season and again on Saturday nights for the 1992 season. Diana Nyad served as the network's host for pregame and halftime. The network premiered the helmet cam to TV audiences.
The reported cost of the contracts varied – the L.A. Times said that ABC had paid $28m for two years, and USA $25m. For the 1992 season, the WLAF charged each network less for broadcasting rights; the New York Times reported that ABC's annual fee went down from $12m to $3m, and USA's from $14m to $10m. The average ratings for ABC's coverage declined from 1991 to 1992, from around 2.1 to 1.7, and those of USA Network dipped from 1.2 to 1.1. Both networks asked the WLAF to expand into two major U.S. markets for 1993.
1991 season coverage in Europe was mostly on satellite television. Eurosport showed games on delay and Super Channel showed the 1991 World Bowl. Channel 4 showed half-hour highlights of Monarchs games on Saturday mornings. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Larry Eichel wrote, "The only way a Monarchs fan could watch the team's first-round playoff game from the Meadowlands was to go to Wembley to see it on closed circuit."
Coverage in Canada was led by RDS, a French-language broadcaster, which focused on Montreal Machine games.
Although the league no longer had any U.S. teams, American television coverage continued until the end. Fox Sports had become a co-owner of the league, and from 1995 to 1998 the primary TV carrier was FX, which carried two games a week on Saturday and Sunday. From 1995 to 2005, Fox showed the World Bowl and two or three regular season games annually. From 1999 to 2004, Fox Sports Net showed a "game of the week" on Saturday, with DirecTV viewers receiving additional live games on channels that normally carried NFL Sunday Ticket. In 2006, NFL Network began showing all regular-season games, either live or on tape delay, and this continued until the league folded. NFL Network also showed the 2006 and 2007 title games.
The revived WLAF's UK coverage was mainly on Sky Sports, with coverage also on Channel 4, STV and Carlton. Eight European continental broadcasters also showed coverage, including Germany's Vox and DSF.
EuroPass, an offshoot of FieldPass, broadcast Internet video of games, free of charge, in the league's later years.
North America (1991–1992)
|Team||Stadium, city||Years used||Capacity|
|Birmingham Fire||Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama||1991–1992||83,091|
|Montreal Machine||Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Quebec||1991–1992||65,255|
|New York/New Jersey Knights||Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey||1991–1992||76,891|
|Ohio Glory||Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio||1992||91,470|
|Orlando Thunder||Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida||1991–1992||65,438|
|Raleigh–Durham Skyhawks||Carter–Finley Stadium, Raleigh, North Carolina||1991||47,000|
|Sacramento Surge||Charles C. Hughes Stadium, Sacramento, California||1991||20,311|
|Hornet Stadium, Sacramento||1992||26,000|
|San Antonio Riders||Alamo Stadium, San Antonio, Texas||1991||23,000|
|Bobcat Stadium, San Marcos, Texas||1992||16,000 approx.|
Europe (1991–1992, 1995–2007)
|Team||Stadium, city||Years used||Capacity|
|Amsterdam Admirals||Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, Netherlands||1995–1996
2000 (one game)
2007 (one game)
|De Meer Stadion, Amsterdam||1995 (two games)||19,000|
|Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam||1997–2007||51,859|
|Barcelona Dragons||Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, Barcelona, Spain||1991–1992, 1995–2002||56,000|
|Mini Estadi, Barcelona||2002 (one game)
|Berlin Thunder||F. L. Jahn Sportpark, Berlin, Germany||1999–2002
2006 (one game)
|Cologne Centurions||RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne, Germany||2004–2007||50,374|
|Frankfurt Galaxy||Waldstadion/Commerzbank-Arena, Frankfurt, Germany||1991–1992, 1995–2007||52,000|
|Hamburg Sea Devils||AOL Arena, Hamburg, Germany||2005–2007||55,989|
|London/England Monarchs||Wembley Stadium, London, England||1991–1992||80,000|
|White Hart Lane, London||1995–1996||36,240|
|Stamford Bridge, London||1996 (one game)
|Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, London||1998||15,500|
|Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, England||1998 (one game)||7,600|
|Ashton Gate, Bristol, England||1998 (one game)||21,500|
|Rhein Fire||Rheinstadion, Düsseldorf, Germany||1995–2002||55,900|
|Arena AufSchalke, Gelsenkirchen, Germany||2003–2004||61,524|
|LTU Arena, Düsseldorf||2005–2007||51,500|
|Scottish Claymores||Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland||1995–1998
2002 (one game)
|Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland||1998 (one game)
|Team||Year 2005||Year 2006||Year 2007|
|Hamburg Sea Devils|
Notable player alumniEdit
- Kurt Warner (Amsterdam Admirals) - won Super Bowl XXXIV as quarterback for the St. Louis Rams and led Arizona Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII, inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017
- Jake Delhomme (Admirals, Frankfurt Galaxy) - starting quarterback for Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, ranks second (to Cam Newton) in passing yards in franchise history
- LaVar Ball (London Monarchs) - father of NBA players Lonzo Ball and LaMelo Ball and European pro LiAngelo Ball, owner/CEO of Big Baller Brand
Coaches and officials of noteEdit
The league left the strongest impact in Germany, where most of the teams played, especially in the later seasons. Much of the NFL-Europe era coincided with the Hamburg Blue Devils - Braunschweig Lions rivalry in the German Football League which saw attendance figures for German Bowl and Eurobowl matchups between the two not seen before or since. Fans of the Frankfurt Galaxy upset about the demise of both their team and the league it played in founded the Frankfurt Universe which made its way up through the German league system and made it from the fifth tear "Landesliga Hessen" in their inaugural 2008 season to the first tier German Football League by 2016. In 2018 Universe participated in German Bowl XL, losing to the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns. There were failed attempts by Universe to acquire the naming rights to "Frankfurt Galaxy" during that period. In 2021 a new "European League of Football" (ELF) began play in several metro areas that had formerly hosted NFL-Europe teams, re-using the names of the Hamburg Sea Devils, Barcelona Dragons, Berlin Thunder, Frankfurt Galaxy and Cologne Centurions under license with the NFL. The aforementioned Frankfurt Universe team lost its Head Coach and virtually its entire starting roster to the upstart crosstown rival from the new league. In the 2021 German Football League Frankfurt Universe only narrowly avoided relegation due to a controversial walkover victory over the Allgäu Comets placing them just ahead the Stuttgart Scorpions who had similarly lost many players to crosstown ELF competition.
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The World League of American Football used similar cameras as part of its game broadcasts in the 1990s
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- World League of American Football/National Football League Europe Uniforms
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to NFL Europe.|
- Historical site index for WLAF and NFL Europe/Europa
- WLAF and NFL Europe/Europa history at The Football Database
- MacGille's World League of American Football website: http://www.worldleagueofamericanfootball.com
- Natures Images Photography – Photos of the Frankfurt Galaxy home games: https://web.archive.org/web/20140102045714/http://frankfurt-galaxy.eu/
- Lee's Autograph Hall of Fame – Photos of a San Antonio Riders home game with team history: http://lee.n8d.com/?p=1336