Long before Sebastian Vollmer was a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, he was an extremely large swimmer. Here in the United States, people would’ve looked at Vollmer, seen this massive, sturdy frame on a child, and pictured a future offensive lineman. But in Germany in the 1990s, American football was still a niche sport, so they sent the big kid to the pool. Nobody even suggested American football to Vollmer until he was 14.
He quickly became hooked by this strange sport he’d never seen before. He made sense on the gridiron, where he could simply obliterate the smaller people (which was pretty much everybody) rather than try to outswim them. “I had a football body,” Vollmer says, “not a Speedo body.” He was drawn to “the teamwork, the hard work,” and in football, found a sense of communal accomplishment he never felt in an individual sport. He sought out whatever scraps of football information he could find in Dusseldorf: “Bootleg” VHS tapes of what he described as “highlight hits,” and articles about American football tucked inside German sports magazines. While Americans soak up football knowledge simply by existing in a country where it is the most popular sport, Vollmer still had gaps in his understanding of the foreign game.
“Two years in, I was playing in Germany, and people kept talking about ‘third-and-10,’” Vollmer remembers. “I remember talking to my center, like, ‘You keep saying that! I don’t know what that means!’”
Still, Vollmer fell in love with America’s sport. German football has come a long way in the 20 years since. Germany is now home to Europe’s largest NFL fan base, and most of those fans know what “third-and-10” means. It’s a transition that shocks the people who have seen it firsthand.
“When I would ride to practice on public transportation with my helmet, everybody would look at me weird, thinking I’m like LARPing or something,” says Jakob Johnson, the Stuttgart-raised fullback for the Las Vegas Raiders. “Now they’re tuned in every Sunday and follow the NFL and know who Patrick Mahomes is and know the basics of what a post safety defense is.”
This Sunday, the NFL makes its German regular-season debut with a game between the Buccaneers and Seahawks at Allianz Arena in Munich. According to the NFL, the league received 3 million ticket requests. That’s slightly more than can fit in the stadium, which seats 75,000.
“Football in Europe is not about whether your team plays,” says Patrick Esume, a German player turned coach turned commentator and commissioner of the European League of Football. “It’s whether the sport is playing.”
A recent survey found that American football is the second-most-popular sport in Germany, behind soccer. The league estimates it has several million more fans in Germany than in England—and the NFL has been playing games in England since 2007. On the average Sunday, close to 500,000 Germans watch the NFL doubleheader called by Esume on German free-to-air station ProSieben. The NFL is opening a permanent office in Vollmer’s hometown of Dusseldorf. There are six German-born NFL players and in the 2021 season there were 25 German-born FBS players—not just kickers and punters, as Americans might assume, but linebackers and safeties and tight ends. The European League of Football was launched in 2021; its games can draw more than 10,000 fans.
“It’s one hell of a party,” says Jim Tomsula, head coach of the ELF’s Rhein Fire and former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. “We have 100 fan clubs. They all dress up in different outfits for the games. And they all try to outdo each other. It’s crazy stuff, man.”
But there were always signs that Germany could sustain football fandom. In the 1990s, the NFL launched NFL Europe, a fanciful two-birds-one-stone approach to creating a developmental league for fringe NFL prospects while simultaneously trying to introduce the game to European fans who had never seen a game before. The team in England couldn’t attract fans. The team in Scotland couldn’t attract fans. The team in Spain couldn’t attract fans. The teams in Germany? They would draw 30,000 fans to games that became daylong parties. “It was essentially NFL Germany,” says Alex Steinforth, the NFL’s general manager for Germany operations—who, as a kid in Dusseldorf, was a spectator at several Rhein Fire games.
Fifteen years after the death of NFL Europe, the NFL is returning to Germany because it believes there’s something special about attending a live football game. “We made the decision a while back, going back to that first game in Mexico in 2005, that bringing our best product—live, regular-season games—into these markets, is clearly what fans want,” says Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of league events. “We’ve seen clear ratings growth in Mexico and in the U.K. the years following those games.”
It’s a fascinating case study. It wasn’t so long ago that football was so obscure in Germany that even its own players didn’t know all the rules. Then one day, a professional league showed up, and people loved it. Then the league vanished, and as a result, 15 years later … there are, somehow, way more fans than there were before? And they’re smarter, more passionate fans? And somehow the NFL figures playing a game there is going to make the sport even more popular?
It’s easy to project that football in Germany is the Next Big Thing—but it’s not necessarily accurate, because football in Germany is already a pretty big thing. As billion-dollar sports leagues try to win new markets, they will try to uncrack this mystery: How did Germany fall in love with our complicated, violent, expensive sport from 5,000 miles away?
Technically, the name of the sport is “American football.” The idea of the game being popular overseas feels almost paradoxical. The best professional basketball and baseball leagues might be in America, but we know that other parts of the world are crazy about those American-born, American-bred games. Foreign countries have leagues with raucous fan bases and produce superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Shohei Ohtani. Football, though? This is our game.
But like a wide receiver taking a jet sweep around the end and sprinting downfield, football has broken contain and is sprinting headlong into new territory. People are watching and playing American football on six continents. I covered the World Championships in 2015—Team USA won, duh, but the American stories were much less interesting than the players who paid their own way from places like Australia, Brazil, and South Korea. (Esume, the commentator/commissioner, was head coach of the French team; they had a rough go of it against Team USA, but finished in fourth place.) The NFL believes its biggest growth opportunities lie overseas—after all, it’s pretty hard to imagine football being more popular in the United States, where 37 of the top 40 TV broadcasts last year were NFL games (and one of the three outliers was the CBS drama that came on after the Super Bowl). But in other countries, there’s still room for football to grow—and Germany tells the tale of how football can quickly transform from a niche game to a cultural touchstone.
Until the 1970s, football didn’t exist in Germany outside of American service people playing the game on military bases. “I’ve got guys on my staff that talk about going over to the bases, looking through the fences, and the American soldiers bringing them in and teaching them how to play football,” says Tomsula. “The kids would see this crazy game, and they wanted to play.”
In 1998, Tomsula was a position coach at his alma mater, Division II Catawba College in North Carolina, when out of the blue, he got a call asking him to work in NFL Europe. He’d been on a plane “once or twice” in his life, and now his new job was in London, coaching the defensive line for the London Monarchs. (Tomsula would spend the next nine years of his football life bouncing around NFL Europe, from London to Edinburgh to Berlin and, finally, to Rhine, where he spent one year as head coach of the original Rhein Fire.)
For the NFL Europe, a key focus was developing future NFL talent—before Kurt Warner was an NFL MVP, he spent time quarterbacking the Amsterdam Admirals; QBs Jake Delhomme, Jon Kitna, and Brad Johnson also spent time in NFL Europe, as did longtime NFL kicker Adam Viniatieri. “You took this bubble from America, with American coaches, American players, American staff, American everything, and you just picked it up and moved to Europe, set it down and did it for four months, then you went home,” says Tomsula. But Tomsula found joy in getting out of the bubble—scouting and working with local players and coaches who were thrilled to be around a game they loved but knew little about. “There’s a pureness to coaching in Europe,” Tomsula says now. “We didn’t make a lot of money, and we were the richest people in the world.” (Tomsula is stunningly poetic for someone who says he hated doing press conferences as an NFL head coach; he enjoys that in Europe he can “let an F-bomb slip” while talking to media and have a translator edit it out of the transcript.)
When the England Monarchs played their final season in 1998, they had a total of 29,000 fans over five home games. That same year, the Frankfurt Galaxy averaged 34,000 fans per game. Eventually, five of the six teams were located in Germany, with a sixth nearby in Amsterdam.
“If you could have seen a Frankfurt Galaxy game, oh my god,” said Esume. “Between 40,000 and 60,000 people. And for the pregame tailgate party they called the Power Party, 30,000 to 40,000 people in front of the stadium going nuts.” (There are YouTube videos for those of us who were not able to make it to the Power Party.)
On June 23, 2007, Esume won World Bowl XV as an assistant coach for his hometown Hamburg Sea Devils, in front of 48,000 fans in Frankfurt. Six days later, NFL Europe was canceled. It was probably a smart business move for the NFL. The league was reportedly losing about $30 million per year on NFL Europe, which had been a pet project of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. New commissioner Roger Goodell preferred a new European strategy. Instead of financing a whole league in Europe, they would play a few games overseas and try to sell fans on the NFL’s existing product. In the same year NFL Europe shut down, the league played its first game in London as part of its International Series.
Tomsula coached his final season in NFL Europe in 2006, and was back in the States, as the defensive line coach for the 49ers, when NFL Europe shut down in 2007. Even as he forged a largely successful coaching career back in the States, he said he and his wife dreamed about returning overseas. Stunningly, he got his chance. Fifteen years after he was head coach of the Rhein Fire, Tomsula is once again head coach of the Rhein Fire, now in the European League of Football. “THIS IS AWESOME,” he excitedly barked at a TV interviewer on the field before his first game, “THE PINNACLE OF SPORTS, RIGHT HERE.”
It was a deliberate decision for the ELF to use NFL Europe team names. “When [NFL Europe] disappeared in ’07, very suddenly for the fans it left a hole and a vacuum that needed to be filled,” says Esume. “So we figured that we bring the names back, there’s a great chance for people to say, ‘OK, this reminds me of NFL Europe.’” And it was also a choice for the NFL to let the ELF use those names. After all, the league still owns the IP to its defunct league. “The NFL is not collecting money from the Rhein Fire to use that name,” says Tomsula. “If I went on an NFL field with a Champion shirt on, I got fined $5,000 because it didn’t say Nike. … So you’re telling me out of the goodness of their heart, they’re just gonna let the ELF use those names? Just, like, ‘Hell yeah, we want you to have a good time’?”
The NFL feels a high tide in European football can raise all boats. “More than 15 years later, there’s still emotional ties in those cities that used to play there,” says Alex Steinforth, the NFL’s top exec in Germany. “In the end, for us, everything that helps American football in Germany also helps the other American football stakeholders.”
The symbiotic relationship works like this: Germans are more likely to be NFL fans if they can see German players playing in the NFL. It’s happened before, with players like Vollmer. But the German football system has historically been a club-based system. Players aren’t pros—in fact, they generally pay their clubs to play. It’s a sign they’re really passionate about the sport, but it’s not a way to foster top-level talent. That’s why Johnson, the Raiders fullback, invested as a part owner of the ELF franchise in Stuttgart—a team that has already produced an NFL player, Marcel Dabo, who signed with the Colts through the International Player Pathway Program.
The ELF might help develop German-born football talent, but ultimately the driver of football popularity in Europe is the NFL. “The NFL delivers the best product in sports,” Esume says. “You’d have to be crazy to say that you can be no. 1 in football.” So Esume plays double duty. He is perhaps the most famous German football personality, with more than 250,000 Instagram followers. (“He’s like the Rock over there,” says John McKeon, a former NC State football player who played for Esume on a club team in France and later founded the blog American Football International.) The German club system struggled to get a TV contract—but that’s not a problem for the ELF, since Esume already works at the broadcast network ProSieben. When the ELF reaches its postseason in September, ProSieben airs a football triple-header—a European game, followed by its back-to-back NFL Sunday broadcasts. Esume can’t be an analyst for the ELF game—conflict of interest, imagine Goodell doing Monday Night Football color commentary—but he is on air for the NFL slate. “It fits perfectly,” says Esume. “One 12-hour stream of football, that goes from Europe to the U.S.”
It makes sense, then, that German fans I spoke with universally pointed to the same turning point in German NFL fandom: 2015, when ProSieben began airing a weekly doubleheader on free-to-air TV, making regular-season games much easier to find. Before free-to-air TV carried the NFL, it was available on pay channels; the only game German fans could watch for free was the Super Bowl, which kicked off close to midnight. The weekly Sunday slate starts at 7 p.m. in Germany—much easier to handle.
Esume says German NFL broadcasts have been so popular because they aren’t used to sports broadcasts that have fun. “In soccer, you usually see a guy in a button-up and it’s very formal,” he says. This isn’t a problem on the NFL broadcast—his cohost, Icke Dommisch, looks like this. He tries to straddle the line between commentating for the newbies and for Germany’s budding population of experts. “That’s the toughest part about the job of being on TV,” Esume says. “You have a huge part of the audience that doesn’t really know football yet. So you have got to be very basic. At the same time, we have people that have been watching our show for eight years. … So if you get on and say, ‘The offensive line is five big guys,’ you’re gonna get a shitstorm on social media afterward.”
It’s a snapshot of football in Germany at the moment. There have always been diehard football fans in Germany—remember Johnson getting weird looks on the bus and a teenage Vollmer reading sports magazines. But you don’t create more diehards by catering exclusively to diehards. Football in Germany became more popular because it opened up for normies with easy-to-find broadcasts and easy-to-understand commentary. And then you turn the normies into sickos.
Take Julian Barsch, who hosts two podcasts—Gridiron Deutschland, an NFL-focused podcast, and Saturday Kickoff, a college football and NFL draft podcast. “Do you believe in analytics or not, do running backs matter or not—all that stuff is also huge over here,” Barsch says. Although there are college games broadcast on German TV every week, he prefers the “American commentary and authentic atmosphere” and seeks out games that might not make it onto German TV. “So most of us have like the ESPN player and then get YouTube TV, and then you get a VPN and then you fake your browser location and stuff like that,” Barsch says.
Much in the same way your buddy from Orlando will proudly announce that he’s a fan of Tottenham Hotspur, most German football fans root for specific NFL teams. Barsch is a Carolina Panthers fan, and he’s not alone. “There’s the Roaring Riot [Panthers fan club] in the U.S., and here there’s the German Riot and all these people are just super cool,” Barsch says. “The German Panthers podcast is really, really nice, like super high quality, and there was just a good vibe with all these people, and that’s kind of made me go with the team.”
On Sunday, Munich will host plenty of Buccaneers and Seahawks fans. The NFL chose this matchup well: Barsch says the Seahawks are popular in Germany because the Legion of Boom era overlapped with the 2015 move to free-to-air NFL broadcasts. When I interviewed Vollmer last month, he said that Brady, the Bucs’ QB, is popular in Germany not only because he won Super Bowls with a German teammate (Vollmer), but also because he’s married to the most famous person of German descent on the planet. (There have been developments on that front since we talked.)
But the Allianz Arena will also have fans of other teams—and Munich will be full of football fans who won’t be able to get into the stadium. “A lot of people in the football community from Twitter and the digital space, most of them will be in Munich,” says Barsch. “It doesn’t really actually matter if you have tickets.” After spending most of their lives thousands of miles from the sport they love, they just want to be near the game.
Germany has long been the center of European football culture. That was true when most of the NFL Europe teams moved to Germany, and it will be true again on Sunday in Munich. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly Teutonic about the sport. Germans love football for the same reason Americans do. We have tailgates; they have Power Parties. We have Sunday afternoons on the couch; they have Sunday nights on the couch. We go to the game to see our favorite team with our friends; they go to Buccaneers-Seahawks with all the Panthers fans they met online. We’re all seeking the community they find within the sport.
“They want to be a part of something,” says Tomsula. “They are fanatical about it. The passion for it, the sacrifice. … I got guys, they’re coming after a hard day’s work and they’re lining the fields. I got our equipment manager. I’m not sure what his [day] job is. I didn’t ask him. But he shows up to practice in a $180,000 BMW. I know he’s got a good job. And he’s running around with jocks and washing helmets and just smiling like nobody’s business.”
Take it from the BMW driver with all the jockstraps on his shoulder—or from a teenaged Sebastian Vollmer, who fell in love with a sport when he didn’t even know all the rules. He didn’t like football just because he was good at it. He liked football because of the feeling he got from playing it. “There are great lessons in football especially,” he says. “Teamwork, hard work, all things we love about it.” He liked football because it’s more fun to set the perfect block with your teammates than it is to try to win alone in the swimming pool. It’s a feeling that you don’t need to translate into German.