Eurobowl II, hosted in the United Kingdom, 1988
In 1986, the decision makers in European football met in Amsterdam to celebrate the inaugural EuroBowl tournament. The young Dutch federation had taken on the mammoth task of staging the event. It was a brave decision and one which showed a long-term commitment to the sport.
The level of American football support in the country at that time was relatively small. Holland was regarded as just outside the top division of European gridiron nations. The ensuing support from players and fans for the home team Amsterdam Rams was not all it might have been.
Each of the eight games was staged with commendable efficiency in Zwolle, The Hague, Eindhoven and Amsterdam. The players enjoyed the experience and the guests and officials were happy to be involved in the first ever EuroBowl. But the crowds didn't turn out in sufficient numbers to turn the decision of the Dutch from a brave one into a financially successful one.
The British contingent in Holland at that time was as large as most. Among them were the directors of Mediawatch International (the publishers of First Down weekly newspaper) as well as representatives from the British American Football League (BAFL), which at the time was the EFL recognised body in the UK.
"Mediawatch was approached to bid for the next EuroBowl", remembers MI managing director Bob Breen. "We all felt that Britain had a larger fan base to support an event like EuroBowl. It made sense that Britain should put itself forward as a contender. It would also mean that the British game could benefit. Every club in the country gets a lift when awareness of the sport increases. EuroBowl would give the game a lift"
EuroBowl was even more relevant for Britain because 1986 was the first time the country had been represented in an EFL event. Two European Nations Championships had come and gone without Britain. Now it was time to make an impression.
The Birmingham Bulls had finished a respectable third in EuroBowl I, so the level of play in the UK was of sufficient quality to make a serious challenge. That would be important to the British bid. The host country needed it's team to reach the semi-finals at least if the fans were ever going to come out in numbers. In fact, the British contingent felt their leagues contained the best in Europe at that time - the London Ravens. But a dispute between the UK organisations had forced the Ravens to miss EuroBowl I, so nobody could prove if this theory was true.
However, it appeared that the UK was kitted up with all the necessary advantages - a good team, excellent facilities and a firm fan base. On that basis Mediawatch began provisional work on a presentation to the European Football League for the following spring on behalf of the UK governing body.
In between times, BAFL folded and a newly-formed governing body, the British American Football Association (BAFA), was set up in April 1987. When Mediawatch's directors put the UK presentation to the EFL full assembly in Milan the following month, BAFA had given it's blessing. The EFL general assembly had also been approached by the Italian federation, but the British challenge won the day. BAFA were to accept the tournament on behalf of British football and Mediawatch International were to organise it.
But the real hard work was now about to begin. European American Football had never received anything like the exposure of it's NFL counterpart nor had it attracted too many big-name sponsors. EuroBowl I was shown live on one of the smaller Dutch TV channels, but there was relatively little television interest elsewhere. Newspapers were restricted in their coverage and in Britain, only the specialist press gave the tournament anything like the space that it deserved.
Mediawatch International saw its task as staging the event by involving as many of the most influential American football parties as possible - both commercial and media.
The first step towards this came during pre-game festivities at the 1987 American Bowl game at Wembley. Bob Carey, president of NFL Properties, was probably the man most interested in the development of European football among anyone in the National Football League. He had seen the international division of the NFLP turn over millions of pounds in merchandise and licensed products in the last few years and most of the business was done in Britain.
The Channel 4 American Football show, the Wembley games and the increasing size of British American Football had meant that the UK had become the jewel in the crown for the NFL's out-of-the-USA commercial activities. The second EuroBowl championship, he saw, was a significant move ahead which warranted support.
So, Bob agreed that NFL Properties would become a co-sponsor of the event and thereby provide the first financial commitment. Tournament chairman Bob Breen said, " For Bob Carey to step in like that gave everyone extra confidence in the event itself as well as European football in general. The prestige attached to the NFL's involvement was very important because television companies recognised this as something of a seal of approval."
American football on television in Britain meant Channel 4 and the production company Cheerleader. Together they had pioneered on-screen development of the sport which had become such a flagship for both organisations.
"Channel 4 had always said that British or European American football wasn't ready for major coverage," said Mediawatch's Ross Biddicombe, "and you had to agree with them because generally speaking the games just weren't big enough in comparison to the NFL. However, we knew EuroBowl was something special. It was one considerable step up from many British football finals that had taken place over the previous few years. This was for the bragging rights of the whole of Europe".
First Cheerleader, and then Channel 4 thought the same and, for the first time, they expanded their American football coverage to take in the EuroBowl event. The final piece of the jigsaw would have to wait until spring 1988 - a full year after the initial bid to stage the event had been made.
Mediawatch's chairman David Wynne-Morgan made an approach to the Daily Mail for their support as brand sponsors of EuroBowl. The British national newspapers had become more and more aware of the American football on its doorstep and the Mail felt that the fans of the game were the sort of readers that they wanted to attract in greater numbers.
A deal was done and so the tournament would assume the name the Daily Mail EuroBowl 88.
"This kind of sponsorship - cash plus guaranteed national exposure to millions of people per day - was good for British American football as a whole, not just the EuroBowl tournament," said Ross Biddicombe, who became the tournament director.
"Promoting a tournament like this means you have to think of expanding the total audience as well as putting on something that will bring along the dedicated fan".
Work on the event had begun almost as soon as the concept was accepted. The eight-team knockout format was spread over nine days with each game planned to be its own festival-style event. Stadiums were selected at Crystal Palace, Brighton, Derby and Bournemouth based on their ability of the local American football club to stage an attractive family event.
Referees from the NCAA in America were to be flown in both to assist with the standard of officiating at the event, but also to offer help and advice to UK referees.
A dance troup - Dancin' USA - would also cross the Atlantic to perform at the final. This would be the first and only major international American football tournament in Britain.
A strong eight-team field was assembled with the London Ravens taking the British spot, after winning the British title in 1987. Ireland's Dublin Celts had lost 36-12 in Vienna against the Graz Giants in a qualifying game and so would not be appearing. Other sides joining the Graz Giants would be:
The Ravens had the toughest of all the opening round opponents, the Amsterdam Crusaders. The Britain/Holland clash would be a re-match of the Bulls/Rams third-fourth place game from two years earlier (the Bulls won then 21-0). This time it would be the Dutch who would conquer. A thrilling game ended with a winning touchdown in the final two minutes by Amsterdam left the Londoners stunned and defeated. There was a shadow over the team that had become known as the Black Shadow.
The final itself proved to be something of an anti-climax following such breath-taking semis. Helsinki simply used their strength to wear down the adventurous Dutch, who were now suffering injuries and exhaustion, both physical and mental. Mike Kane of Helsinki was virtually unstoppable as his Roosters kept the Eurobowl trophy in Finland with a 35-14 victory.
EuroBowl II tournament results
Qualifying game - Graz Giants 36-12 Dublin
Celts, in Graz, Austria
3rd place playoff (7th August)
Berlin Eagles 3-28 Milan Legnano Frogs (at Crystal Palace)
Eurobowl II (7th August)
Helsinki Roosters 35-14 Amsterdam Crusaders (at Crystal Palace)