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N.F.L., on Lookout for Growth, Finds Open Arms in Germany

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About 60 hardcore fans of the National Football League piled into the party space at Der Player, a fancy eatery, on a chilly evening in Hamburg, Germany, last month. Wearing jerseys and hoodies of teams like the Chicago Bears, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Las Vegas Raiders, they grabbed seats to watch a taping of “Prime Time Football Live,” which attracts thousands of viewers on YouTube.

At 7 p.m., Patrick Esume, a former coach and now the commissioner of the semipro European League of Football, warmed up the audience before leading them in a countdown: “Drei, zwei, eins, Football Bromance!” He then introduced his panelists: the former coach Andreas Nommensen; Mika Kaul, a television commentator; and Kasim Edebali, who played six seasons in the N.F.L.

For the next 90 minutes, they reviewed the latest games, peppered the audience with questions, like whether Patrick Mahomes is one of the five best quarterbacks of all time, and dissected a four-game suspension that the Denver Broncos cornerback Kareem Jackson received. Phrases like “bang-bang play,” “hard-nosed linebacker” and “field possession” were tossed around with ease.

Esume kept the show light and moving, and he leaned on Edebali for his expertise as a linebacker. At points, they stood together to demonstrate legal tackling techniques, and they talked in detail about how to study opposing offenses. Afterward, the audience crowded around the panelists and took a group photo.

“To sit next to them while we talk football, it’s so interactive,” said Jenni Gayk, who wore a Chiefs jersey and has been watching N.F.L. games on German television since 2015. “You can feel that the N.F.L. is getting much more popular.”

Long the largest league in the United States with more than $20 billion a year in revenue, the N.F.L. has been looking for new ways to grow, including overseas. And nowhere is the league growing faster than it is in Germany.

The audience’s knowledge and enthusiasm at the taping — some traveled from as far away as Austria — was a sign of the N.F.L.’s rising stature in a country whose sports landscape is ruled by soccer. Football remains far behind the national sport, but 3.6 million Germans say they are avid N.F.L. fans — that’s 25 percent more than in Britain, which has hosted regular-season games since 2007.

Interest soared last year when the N.F.L. played its first-ever regular season game in Germany. Tickets sold out in minutes, as they did this year for the two games to be played on consecutive weekends in Frankfurt, starting on Sunday when Kansas City meets the Miami Dolphins.

Ben Hensler, who has followed Kansas City since Joe Montana led the team in the early 1990s, tried to buy tickets online but discovered there were more than a million people ahead of him. Desperate, he paid 3,000 euros, or $3,175, for V.I.P. tickets for him and his two teenage godsons, who sold their PS5 game console to raise money.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing because we’re not going to go to Kansas City to watch a game,” he said. “Years ago, no one would know who the Chiefs were and now they are the biggest team in Germany.”

Hensler’s godsons, he said, are typical of the younger generation of fans who grew up on video games and social media and enjoy the N.F.L.’s high-octane entertainment. Soccer feels slow and traditional to them, while football “seems to be a modern sport and, despite all the breaks in the action, it seems faster, especially on social media,” he said.

The N.F.L. is trying to capitalize on that interest. In October, the league opened an office in Düsseldorf and five N.F.L. teams were awarded exclusive marketing rights in the country.

One of those clubs, the New England Patriots, hired Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Kuhn, two Germans who had played for the team, to work as German-language commentators. Their time as Patriots is a big reason the team has 13 fan clubs in Germany and several more in Austria and Switzerland, Robert Kraft, the team’s owner, said. The team has two employees working full time finding new sponsorships in Germany.

Kansas City had a running start in Germany because its owner, Clark Hunt, also owns a soccer team, F.C. Dallas, which had a player development partnership with F.C. Bayern, Germany’s top soccer team. Kansas City expects to generate more than €1 million ($1.05 million) in revenue this year from sponsorships and other deals in Germany.

“Obviously, it’s a very small piece of overall revenue, but the growth rate is exponential,” Kansas City’s president, Mark Donovan, said. “Taking advantage of this timing is what’s going to pay off decades from now.”

After years of rapid growth, the question now is whether the N.F.L. can keep up with its own hype. The excitement around the games in Munich and now Frankfurt is real. But like the annual games in London, they may become routine.

This season, the league’s new media partner, RTL, will show more than 170 regular-season games, though its ratings so far have been mixed. According to Fanatics, Germany is the largest market for N.F.L. licensed merchandise outside North America, but the 10 percent rise in sales this year is smaller than in recent years.

Football was introduced to Germany by American soldiers after World War II, and the first semipro league began play in 1979. The country was home to some of the strongest teams in the N.F.L.’s European league before it folded in 2007.

The arc of Edebali’s journey has largely paralleled the growth of football in Germany since then. Edebali, 34, joined a flag football team in Hamburg as a 9-year-old and fell in love with the energy, strategy and camaraderie of the game.

He made a simple yet seemingly improbable vow: to make it to the N.F.L. At 15, he joined the Hamburg Huskies tackle team, which is when he realized how much harder he needed to work.

Bjorn Werner, who would become the first German player ever drafted in the first round, told Edebali about USA Football’s International Student Program, which placed him in a high school in New Hampshire.

“I thought I had won the lottery,” Edebali said.

After receiving a scholarship to play at Boston College, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Saints. After three seasons there, he spent parts of the next three years with the Broncos, the Detroit Lions, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Raiders.

As happens to many players, N.F.L. teams stopped calling, so Edebali returned to Hamburg in 2021 to play for the Hamburg Sea Devils in the newly formed European League of Football. He realized that he was something of a folk hero to German football fans, who viewed him as a pioneer for making it to the N.F.L.

“He managed to find his way in a world where there wasn’t really an obvious pathway for international players to get into the league,” said Alexander Steinforth, the manager of the N.F.L.’s operations in Germany.

With the N.F.L. ramping up its activities in Germany and fans hungry for more content about the league, Edebali leaned into his experience and went to work as a commentator for ProSieben, which had the rights to show N.F.L. games.

Edebali also joined Werner, Esume and other football veterans at Football Bromance, a content company that promotes the league and game. The group’s sponsor has rented a 5,000-seat theater in Frankfurt for the Friday before the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots play so they can interact with fans at an event called Bromania.

“It’s almost like football is a language,” Edebali said. “Obviously, native speakers speak it the best, but in Germany, we speak it, too.”

For all the fervor for the league, though, the N.F.L. is a long way from putting a team in Europe. The logistics of moving players and equipment between continents is a huge hurdle. Even the games that sell out in England and Germany lose millions of dollars.

Still, the N.F.L. appears to be in for the long haul. In 2015, the league mapped out a strategy for finding new fans in Germany with German-language websites, newsletters and social media. It formed a partnership with ProSieben, which helped attract “legacy” fans who had rooted for the N.F.L.’s European league in the 1990s. The league introduced Game Pass, which lets fans watch multiple games each Sunday.

The N.F.L. has been successful at attracting younger, well-educated audiences that advertisers want to reach. Marcel Schwarzkopf, who runs sports sponsorships for DKB, an online bank that is the presenting sponsor of the N.F.L. games in Germany, said the N.F.L. had a fresher, more digital approach to mixing entertainment with sports than “King Soccer.”

The league’s fans are “exactly the target we’re approaching with our retail group: high purchasing power and above average interest in finance when compared to soccer fans,” he said.

DKB is also a partner of Football Bromance, which has helped turn Esume, Edebali, Werner and other former football players into celebrities that younger fans recognize.

The N.F.L. knows that getting children to play football will raise the odds they will remain fans as they get older. The league is sponsoring flag football leagues, which has helped boost participation in tackle football. There are more than 350 football clubs in Germany with about 50,000 players, up from 30,000 in 2006, according to Fuad Merdanovic, the president of the American Football Association of Germany.

“People here want to be part of something big,” Edebali said, “and once you see others are also interested, you want to join in.”

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