Why the NFL’s first game in Germany was such a success
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Seattle Seahawks in Germany this Sunday, thanks to 258 yards from Tom Brady and a defensive effort that proved just enough to hold off Seattle’s second-half surge.
The win put the Bucs one game atop their weak division, and improved Brady’s international record to 4-0. He has now won two matches in London and one in Mexico City, in addition to yesterday’s match in Munich. Brady was upbeat through the press after the game, calling the 21-16 win at the Allianz Arena (home of perennial powerhouse FC Bayern Munich) “One of the great football experiences I’ve ever had. He added: “That says a lot for 23 year in the league.”
That review is music to commissioner Roger Goodell’s ears. He has spent years pouring money and time into Europe’s most populous country (not counting Russia), which claims 19 million NFL supporters. Some Germans are apparently so into American football that they “marry in jerseys”. Teams like the Bucs, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots have secured foreign marketing slots in Germany to encourage fan growth, while Goodell has candidly expressed that he expects to play “at least” four more games in the country through 2025.
The NFL now has a heartbreaking pitch for all non-believers too: in the final two minutes of last night’s game, as Brady and the Bucs ran out the clock, 75,000 German fans sang along to a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads”. The crowd launched themselves into another verse even after the PA system cut out.
The primary obstacle to NFL growth in Germany, as in all European markets, has long been logistical. Munich is over 4,000 miles away from New York, and six hours ahead. It’s an extra hour ahead of London, too, giving naysayers all the ammunition they need — the “how much jet lag is too much” debate has plagued the league since it staged its first game at Wembley Stadium in 2007. With the Seahawks playing a full nine hours in front of their beds this weekend, it was questionable whether the players could adjust in time for kickoff.
But Sunday wasn’t just a win for the Bucs, or the NFL in general, it was also one for sports science. Players came in equipped and prepared for the dramatic time shift thanks to a wealth of tips, tricks and toys that team experts have acquired and put to use over the past 15 years.
In a sport where coaches generally feel entitled to speak their minds, travel stress wasn’t a topic at pregame conferences (even if Leonard Fournette barely got his passport in time). There were some complaints about the grass at Allianz, with Pete Carroll telling reporters that he “[wished] the field was firmer’ after the match, but the athletes played a typically chippy, back-and-forth contest, with alternating bouts of brilliance and blunders.
How did the players manage to make it look like a regular NFL game? Especially when most of us find it difficult to fly across time zones just to have a drink next to a pool?
Well, they started orienting themselves to Munich time at the beginning of the week, pushing their bedtimes (and wake-up times) back half an hour each night, for an eventual flight across the pond on Thursday afternoon. (No caffeine was allowed after dinner on Wednesday or Thursday.) Arriving in Germany early on Friday, napping for more than 30 minutes was strongly discouraged, to ensure successful early trips to bed. The players then woke up with the locals on Saturday, had their briefings and went back to bed to feel ready for the game at 3.30pm on Sunday.
When you see it planned like this (courtesy of a clutch digging from The Athletic), an NFL game in Germany doesn’t seem so crazy. A permanent NFL team do — how receptive would a player be to this song and dance six or eight times a year? But performance specialists now give players sleep aids (dream water, tart cherry juice, blue light-blocking glasses) and muscle-relieving technology (Cape Bionics compression garments, Firefly blood flow stimulators), meant to keep the mind and body as fresh as possible after 10 hours at 30,000 feet. Perhaps we are heading towards a future where these trips will become routine.
One thing to remember – North American athletes have received really used to flying to the west coast. Germany is a bigger test than California, obviously, but going out every couple of seasons or so, the trip isn’t an outlandish request. These players are professionals; they know how to fall asleep when they need to. It helps that they’re not crammed into 37H on a connecting flight to Frankfurt, of course, but if you can train your body to stiff-arm a 300-pound defensive end, you can figure out how to get your 40 in no time. Expect more NFL Germany in the coming years…with rested stars playing their best.
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