Hunderthousands of people will be watching American Football in Germany this year. But not the two games of the National Football League (NFL), the American professional league, which will take place in Frankfurt in November, but those of the European league, the European League of Football (ELF). The teams are called Stuttgart Surge, Rhein Fire, Hamburg Sea Devils or Frankfurt Galaxy and not the Kansas City Chiefs or New England Patriots, and yet these teams are attracting more and more German football fans to the stadiums and in front of the TV screens.
This weekend, the still young league, which was only founded about two and a half years ago by TV expert Patrick Esume and business partner Zeljko Karajica, is now facing a daring experiment: it will host a seasonal game in the 57,000-seat Hamburg Volksparkstadion. Where otherwise the second division soccer club Hamburger SV plays its home games. Normally, between 3,000 and 6,000 people come to the Sea Devils games in the Hoheluft stadium in Hamburg’s Eppendorf district, but now it’s expected to be significantly more. The makers of the ELF want to bring American football back onto the big stage in Germany. And boss Karajica says in an interview with the FAZ: “I am 1000 percent convinced that this will not be a financial fiasco.”
“Those are really good numbers”
To understand the full scope of this bold plan, it’s helpful to look back to the early days of the league. Its makers, especially the former football coach Esume, were dissatisfied with the public image of football in Germany. Together with Karajica, who was once the managing director of Deutsches Sport Fernsehen (DSF) and Sport1, managed the German business of the ProSiebenSat.1 Group and is now a large-scale investor in the sports sector (he owns the football clubs Austria Klagenfurt and Viktoria Berlin, among others) , he created the vision of a kind of Europe-wide football super league – which is presented and marketed better than the various national leagues and is therefore much more attractive for TV stations, sponsors and the many fans in Germany and elsewhere.
The ELF started with eight teams in the summer of 2021, in the middle of the corona pandemic. After a season with sporting ups and downs and – also due to pandemic-related conditions such as the reduction of stadium capacities – economic start-up difficulties, the league had already grown to twelve teams from five countries in the second year. Before their third season, which had just started, the ELF expanded further to now 17 teams from nine nations. In the coming year it should be “at least” 20, with Esume and Karajica aiming for 24 teams from 15 European countries. That sounds ambitious and it is, but the development to date gives weight to what they say.
Interest, at least in the ELF core country Germany, has grown continuously since the league was founded. Rhein Fire, for example, regularly played in Duisburg in front of more than 10,000 spectators in the stadium, last Sunday there were almost 13,000 at the season opener against Frankfurt Galaxy, the market share at the broadcasting station ProSieben Maxx was 3.2 percent in the group of 14 to 49 year-olds, which is about 50 percent more than the broadcaster achieves on average.
At its peak, 330,000 people watched on TV, plus a few thousand via various streaming services such as the league’s own “Game Pass”, with which all ELF games can be followed via its own digital platform, and 1.5 million interactions on social media -channels. “These are really good numbers considering how young we are as a league,” says Karajica. The ELF now employs more than 30 people, with a few hundred freelancers added during the peak season. American football has stepped out of its niche in Germany – but the makers of the ELF want more.
So now the Volksparkstadion, which fits perfectly into this strategy of “ever bigger, always further” as the home ground of an ELF team. One-time first, but further dates in the big football stadiums, also in other cities, could follow, according to Karajica. “If you want to achieve something, you have to set an example,” says the 52-year-old.
And the project is well received: more than 25,000 tickets have already been sold for the game between the Hamburg Sea Devils and Rhein Fire this Sunday (4:25 p.m. on ProSieben Maxx), Karajica expects “over 30,000 people” to attend the football party. According to the ELF founder and current CEO, this should also have a long-term effect on sales for the remaining games in the smaller stadiums. And the big league final, which will be played in the MSV Duisburg football stadium in September, is already almost sold out, although it has not yet been decided who will play there.
Karajica knows that the ELF has by no means mastered all the challenges. The franchise from Istanbul, for example, had to give up after just one season and withdrew from the game, some other locations, where 1000 to 2000 spectators come to the games rather than 10,000 and more, live financially, as can be heard behind the scenes, more from hand to mouth. Karajica, he admits in an interview with the FAZ, has not yet earned any money from his football investment. Not yet, as he emphasizes.
“Of course there are many areas that we can still improve. But we have already achieved something that other leagues have not been able to do in 60 years: to create a product that can be followed worldwide on television, on a laptop or on a cell phone. High-class sport that captivates people on the screens and fascinates them in the stadiums. There we are laying the foundation for the ELF to be successful in the long term.” Will it succeed? You can get an idea of this over the weekend in Hamburg.