News : Controversial kick-off – Sport – SZ.de
In terms of sports politics, a lot has gone wrong in Hamburg in recent years, says Max Paatz, General Manager of the Hamburg Sea Devils football team: the abrupt end of the freezers in the German ice hockey league, the crash of the handball players. And the HSV? “Dodging around in the second division,” says Paatz. So the rebirth of the Sea Devils is just about right. From the last season of the NFL Europe, an offshoot of the North American National Football League, they had passed as champions in 2007. Up to 40,000 people had attended their games, says Paatz.
This could be the beginning of a romantic story. Teams were reactivated not only in Hamburg, but also at other locations from the NFL Europe era: Berlin Thunder, Cologne Centurions, Frankfurt Galaxy. You want to play for titles in the newly founded European League of Football (ELF). There are also brand new teams from Leipzig and Stuttgart, the multiple Polish champions Breslau and the Barcelona Dragons.
The concept came up with the former professional and trainer Patrick “Coach” Esume. As a TV expert, the 47-year-old from Hamburg is something like the face of German American football. The initial idea, which is as simple as it is coherent: to do it better than the NFL Europe and the amateur sector in Germany, “so that our sport gets the stage it deserves”. The NFL Europe was organized from the USA. The participating clubs bought themselves into the franchise system as dependent licensees. It is different now, assures Esume, as well as the media attention for football. For the Super Bowl, the final of the NFL, more than 2.4 million people recently tuned into Pro Sieben – a record. It was obvious that Esume’s “number one football broadcaster” now shows many ELF games on ran.de and Pro Sieben Maxx. As commissioner of the ELF, Esume is also responsible for its expansion: the league is to grow to 24 participants in the next few years.
So much for romance. Because there is also criticism of the idea, especially from the German Football League (GFL) – and the time pressure is enormous. The season is due to start on June 20, the schedule is ready. “The Kings don’t have more than the coach yet,” reported the German press agency on April 7th about the situation in Leipzig. The ELF was not able to find a contact in Leipzig in the middle of the month, nor in Berlin. Frankfurt has an almost complete squad, but will not start training together until the beginning of May. Stuttgart is already practicing in groups, but is looking for more coaches according to its own information.
Last weekend, the 65 players and 14 trainers of the Sea Devils all trained together for the first time thanks to a special permit from the City of Hamburg. However, without uniform, helmet and balls – the equipment did not arrive until the week. Most players know each other from their youth, says Paatz. Some would have played in the GFL, defensive end Kasim Edebali even has NFL experience in New Orleans and Los Angeles, among others. “Now we’re bringing people back together,” says Paatz. With their “all-star team”, the Devils expect good chances.
GFL boss Axel Streich says that the ELF uses existing structures “free of charge and ruthlessly”
So the team is in place. The problem remains of forming a competitive team within two months; from players who have not played football or trained for a year and a half – the 2020 GFL season was canceled due to the pandemic. “It’s extremely sporty, but not unrealistic,” believes Paatz. The players are experienced footballers and have already worked with their coaches – both were brought in in large numbers by the Elmshorn Fighting Pirates. Paatz was sports director there.
What does that mean for Elmshorn, who reported for the GFL for the first time in autumn? The license for the first division was given, the first men’s team dissolved – but also because of the difficult financial situation in the pandemic, as the club admitted in December.
What the Sea Devils celebrate as the reunification of the Hamburg boys was already heavily criticized by the GFL in November. It has been confirmed, says league board member Axel Streich, that the ELF uses existing structures “free of charge and ruthlessly”. The ELF Frankfurt Galaxy franchise stole players and coaches from the GFL club Frankfurt Universe, while the Cologne Crocodiles fear the same. It is estimated that around 75 percent of the players in Stuttgart will come from the GFL. There is also competition for training grounds, stadiums, sponsors and referees. GFL boss Streich does not believe that the new league is about the further development of the sport – but about profit maximization. The timing of the ELF is precarious: After years of dissatisfaction with the German association – the ELF emerged from this dispute – the GFL is currently facing a change and should be professionalized.
In addition to Elmshorn, Ingolstadt and Hanover have also left the GFL with their Hildesheim locations: corporations were founded there with the aim of building up an ELF franchise, says Streich. These would have enticed players, coaches and sponsors from the clubs there. However, negotiations with the ELF have since failed; Ingolstadt and Hanover will not be represented in either the GFL or the ELF at least in 2021. In Stuttgart, where the new team wanted to join the ASC Scorpions, its members resisted and replaced the board. The construct would have endangered the existence of the association, a spokesman justified the move.
“You have the right to choose where you want to play,” said Esume about the transfers. And: “If everything were great in the league, why are the players leaving?” He finds the accusation of not wanting to develop the sport further “ridiculous”. He assumes that the GFL will even benefit if football is given a different status in Germany. And “of course” the ELF is about profits, that is the principle: what the league earns goes back to the franchises. The aim is to prevent gaps in the budget that GFL clubs often have. There are no license fees, says Esume, the league is financed primarily from sponsorship, TV and streaming contracts and viewer income. According to Esume, what a team is allowed to spend is also regulated – for more equal opportunities, based on the American model. “We don’t want the same champions every year as in the Bundesliga.” The Frankfurt budget is between 750,000 and 950,000 euros in the first year – depending on which Corona concept has to be used, says Alexander Korosek, managing partner of Galaxy. The pandemic could of course still have a decisive influence on the course of the season: If a team has to be quarantined, the missed games will be counted as lost, explains Paatz. The schedule does not offer any space for alternative dates, practically every weekend up to the final on September 26th is occupied.
At the season opening on June 20, the Sea Devils Hamburg will receive the four-time NFL Europe Champion Frankfurt Galaxy, who wants to “have a big say” in the first title race. The duel will be the first live game at Pro Sieben Maxx. Patrick Esume then leaves the commenting to his TV colleagues.