The word ‘finally’ can sometimes be used overzealously, but it was perhaps the term of choice for many German fans in response to the news that the National Football League (NFL) would be bringing regular season games to their country from 2022.
This season is the first in the NFL’s four-year commitment to stage matches annually in Germany, starting with Sunday’s game between Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks at Munich’s Allianz Arena. The same venue will host an additional game during that period, with the other two fixtures taking place in Frankfurt.
If not always officially, Germany has long been considered a logical next step for the NFL’s international series of fixtures, which also sees the league host annual games in London and at Mexico’s Estadio Azteca. German fans have regularly made the pilgrimage to the UK when the league is in town and a recent YouGov survey found that one in ten people in Germany are interested in the NFL, including four per cent who say it is one of their top interests.
Indeed, the NFL has made significant strides in Germany in recent times, not only by laying the foundations for its first regular season games in the country, but also by opening an office in Dusseldorf, where it is assembling a team that will be dedicated to growing its business in the market.
Leading that operation is Alexander Steinforth (right), who the NFL recruited last year from Deutsche Sport Marketing, the commercial arm of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), to head up its Germany office as managing director. Armed with an extensive background in soccer, including stints at Manchester United, Fortuna Dusseldorf and the German Football League (DFL), the experienced executive tells SportsPro that his first year in the role has been “a million things happening at the same time”.
Many of those efforts have been building up to this weekend’s game, which Steinforth describes as “our tentpole event”. And if there was any doubt over just how popular the NFL in Germany has become, one need only look at the demand for the first regular season fixture, which has proved to be the hottest ticket in town.
More than 600,000 fans registered their interest in the game and Ticketmaster, which is handling sales on behalf of the league, said it could have sold three million tickets for the match, noting that the only other event to see more demand on its platform was the Super Bowl.
“I’ve spent a couple of years in the sports industry, but personally, I’ve never seen an event triggering that much excitement in Germany, not even a Champions League final,” says Steinforth.
On the topic of Germany potentially hosting more games in the future, he adds: “What we see is that the demand is great, numbers are crazy, and what we’ve already seen [is that] fan numbers in Germany are already at a level of the UK, in some areas even ahead of it. We wouldn’t be worried that there would be demand for more games. In the end, it’s obviously not a decision from us in market.
“What I can share is that there is great interest going forward of teams playing in Germany. I think there’s great interest of teams within the league in general to play internationally. You can really see that, within the NFL, international is getting much more important, because the next 50 million fans won’t come out of the States, they have to come out of our international fanbase.”
How the NFL’s strategy for Germany will differ from the UK
This year saw the NFL host its 33rd game in London, where it has staged games since the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins met at Wembley Stadium in 2007. Matches have also been played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the first purpose-built NFL venue outside of North America, and Twickenham, the country’s home of rugby union, and there are very rarely any empty seats.
Given the success the NFL has had in the British capital it would be tempting for the organisation to implement the same strategy in Germany and hope for the same results. Steinforth, though, says it won’t be as simple as that, pointing out that there are different nuances between the two markets.
Perhaps the most obvious difference this weekend will be seen in the way the NFL activates around the game, which Steinforth promises will include efforts to recreate the American experience while also integrating some uniquely German elements into the event.
“We’re looking very closely at the UK and we’re working extremely close with our colleagues in the London office,” he says. “There’s a lot of great things we can learn from everything that has already been done in the UK in London. Beyond that, it wouldn’t feel right to try to copy and paste the things that have been done in other markets, even though they might have worked there, because in the end it’s a very unique and bespoke strategy we have in mind.
I’ve never seen an event triggering that much excitement in Germany, not even a Champions League final.Alexander Steinforth, Managing Director, NFL Germany
“We have to find ways to grow the interest for the sport in a market that is even more mono-focused on one sport. In the UK, you at least have cricket and rugby as relatively big sports. In Germany, soccer is even more ahead of other sports than it is in the UK. So trying to understand the market, trying to find strategies, how we can grow our fanbase, [it] just forces us almost to come up with individual concepts for the German market.”
Staging games in a new market for the first time will not be without its challenges, though. Unlike the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Allianz Arena isn’t fitted with a retractable pitch capable of switching between a Premier League and NFL surface in just 25 minutes. Bayern Munich hosted Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga on Tuesday, leaving just a matter of days to get everything organised in time for Sunday.
In preparation for that, Steinforth says much of the summer was spent laying some of the groundwork ahead of time, including extending the pitch, preparing the goalposts and renovating the changing rooms to be big enough to house an American football team.
“It’s a massive organisational challenge for everyone involved,” Steinforth admits. “Usually when we play at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or Estadio Azteca, these are all stadiums we know. And usually it requires a week to eight days to get fully prepared in stadiums that we know. This time it’s a stadium we haven’t known before and there’s only a couple of days to get everything ready.”
That alone shows that there are very specific requirements for any venue wanting to host an NFL game. Munich and Frankfurt were the chosen destinations in the end, with Dusseldorf also on the final shortlist, but there were reports that as many as seven cities were interested in hosting regular season games. London has become synonymous with the NFL in the UK, but it seems that there could be an opportunity in Germany for games to be spread across the country in future.
According to Steinforth, there were various criteria the league considered before landing on Munich and Frankfurt.
“In the end, it all comes down to logistical capabilities to host something like this,” he says. “But also, is it the right place from a fans’ perspective? Does it play hand in hand with our overall Germany strategy? Because Germany is very different to the UK when you look at how the country is set up, it’s more decentralised, you have more cities that are almost the same size.
“We’re really trying to draft a strategy that allows us to get in touch with our fans in multiple parts of the country, because we are convinced that this is the right way to really grow that local relevance.”
There could be another way to grow local relevance. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently said that London would have the capacity to support two franchises and has even talked up the possibility of the league forming a European division. That all feels very far away for now, but one would assume that if the idea were to materialise then Germany would also be at the front of the queue to house its own NFL team.
“For us, it’s one step after another,” says Steinforth. “It’s about hosting that first ever regular season game. I think based on the demand we saw, I’m definitely confident that there’s appetite from the fans about four more games. What that might result in in the future, we will see, but I think for now it’s more trying to understand how much interest we see and trying to really take it step by step – one game this year, and then other teams coming to market next year, and really learning during that process.
“I wouldn’t say no [to a German NFL franchise], but that’s a discussion for the owners and for the commissioner.”
Making a long-term investment
Steinforth says the NFL’s “number one goal” in Germany is fan growth. The league estimates that it currently has around 19 million supporters in the country, a number that will surely climb in line with the introduction of annual games and the development of the international home marketing areas programme. That initiative, which grants clubs overseas marketing rights in certain territories, has seen the Bucs, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots snap up the opportunity to engage with German fans year-round.
But there are also going to be financial benefits of having an annual marquee occasion in Germany. Steinforth won’t be drawn on how much money the regular season games will make in and of themselves, but suggests success will be measured in different ways.
“The goals are not there to be highly profitable,” he says. “We want to break even and we want to make sure that we don’t make losses from it, but even more importantly for us, it’s to use [the games] as a way to really grow fandom, to invest into the market, to show what the NFL is all about.
“NFL events are very unique when it comes to how much attention to detail, how much branding goes in. We’re trying to make sure that this is not just sport, this is also entertainment. And this is like a family event, an all-day event, all those kinds of things which are not necessarily common in other sporting events in Germany. That’s why we’re investing a lot of money in the German market and one of those investments are the games that we’re playing.”
While Steinforth might not be focusing on the numbers for now, where the NFL will hope to see an impact in the long term is in the value of its commercial partnerships in Germany, and specifically its media rights deals.
According to Ampere Analysis, the NFL’s UK broadcast contract with Sky is now worth UK£100 million (US$114 million) over five years, which it describes as a ‘significant increase’ compared to what the league received before staging games in the market in 2007. What’s more is that the pay-TV broadcaster also now has a dedicated NFL channel, something that demonstrates its long-term commitment to the competition.
The NFL will be aiming for something similar from its commercial partnerships in Germany. It recently signed new media rights deals with free-to-air (FTA) broadcaster RTL and streaming service DAZN, starting from 2023. The league’s German viewership has grown 20 per cent since 2017 and it will be optimistic that its presence in the market will help to grow that even further.
Elsewhere on the commercial front, the NFL’s first regular season game in Munich has also lured a presenting sponsor in the form of Deutsche Kreditbank (DKB), in addition to other partners, which Steinforth believes speaks to the fact that German businesses are already waking up to the local relevance of the sport.
As the NFL’s experience in the UK has shown, though, nurturing and growing those partnerships takes time. The opening step towards that will come on Sunday, which will be the first milestone in what the league hopes will be a long and prosperous relationship with the German market.
“You can definitely tell that partners in market realise that the relevance of the NFL is massively growing by having a game in Germany,” Steinforth continues. “But our goal is to turn it into so much more than a regular season game. For us, it’s almost like a mini–Super Bowl.
“Everything we try to build around it is to show German fans – but also those that are not fans yet, wider sport fans – what the NFL is about.”