<
>

NFL Europe almost voted into extinction

In a vote that was closer than many had anticipated, and which reflected some strong sentiment against continuing an experiment of mixed results, owners decided Wednesday during a half-day meeting in Washington, D.C., to continue the NFL Europe league.

The vote, however, could not have been any closer and one more owner opposed to the matter would have killed off the springtime league.

On most key issues, like NFL Europe, a three-quarters vote of the league membership, or 24 of 32 votes, is required for endorsement. The NFL owners voted precisely 24-8 to continue NFL Europe for two more seasons. The league has been championed for years by commissioner Paul Tagliabue and sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that he had to be persuasive to retain the developmental league.

"We want to keep looking at it," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. "We feel that there is still potential there on which we can build."

The membership will be asked to decide next year, entering the final season under the new business plan for NFL Europe, to extend it through 2013. There are some owners who still contend that the league, founded in 1991, can realize a profit.

But other owners remain concerned about continuing financial losses, and diminished returns in terms of player development, and told ESPN.com they question the wisdom of continuing to subsidize NFL Europe.

In another matter the owners voted, as anticipated, to award Super Bowl XLI, in 2007, to Miami. It will mark the ninth time the city will have hosted the championship game.

Support for again resuscitating NFL Europe appeared mixed when ESPN.com surveyed several owners the past few weeks. And the Wednesday vote certainly reflected that. The vote next year, on endorsing the league through 2013, could be rather contentious. There is little doubt Tagliabue and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, who is in favor of NFL Europe, must buttress support in the coming year.

Said one opponent: "I'm just not convinced of the long-term (viability). The proponents keep telling me I'm short-sighted. Well, my vision is plenty good enough for me to see us throwing good money after something that's had 12 years to work, and hasn't."

With the NFL's three-year business plan for NFL Europe having expired, league owners recently received a memorandum detailing the benefits of overseas play, and the positives of continuing the experiment to globalize American-style football.

Some owners have become weary of investing in a product perceived as stagnant, and which has not created much ripple effect, in their minds. But the proponents of keeping NFL Europe still view as essential the potential for marketing opportunities, and at a time when there are few new revenue streams, along with expanding the NFL's scope as a true entertainment entity.

One stance that likely will not sell, at least with more pragmatic owners, is the contention that the investment in Europe might eventually produce some NFL players. In the recent memo, NFL officials pointed out that other American professional leagues have tapped into foreign-bred talent, and suggested the NFL might someday do likewise.

Countered one NFC personnel chief: "The logic there is totally skewed. Baseball, the NBA, hockey, they draw foreign players because those sports are played in a lot of other countries. But, hey, no one else plays football but us. Other countries are developing the players for those other sports. Us, we're sending players to other countries, hoping they will develop. But we could do the same thing with a springtime schedule played here."

Certainly development of high-profile players, like St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, has slowed. There were 257 former NFL Europe players on NFL rosters in 2002, and the number is probably similar this season, but the spring league hasn't produced as many visible stars recently as it did 3-5 years ago.

A few other owners noted the security risks involved in sending American players to Europe, but there were no reported incidents in 2002, and NFL officials feel the threat is not a particularly strong one.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.