Quick Q: did you know that American football is alive and thriving in Italy? And that one of the ways the sport’s parent organization—the Federazione Italiana di American Football (FIDAF) expects to grow even further is by bringing its crown jewel event, the Italian Bowl, to the U.S.?
It’s true. Much as we love sports and Italy here at AD, even we weren’t all that aware of American football’s relevance in the homeland until we saw the big press release in late September that the 42nd (XLII in pro football championship speak) Italian Bowl would be played on July 1, 2023, in Toledo, OH, marking the first time that the Italian Football League’s championship game would be played outside Europe.
How’d we get here? We’ll aim to give you the Cliff’s Notes. For starters, obviously the reason “American” needs to be put before Football in all the Italian references is because “soccer,” which is their football and basically the world’s football, is still king, in Italy and throughout Europe and most of the globe, and has been since the 19th century. American football came to Italy with World War II, and achieved some degree of fame thanks to the January 1, 1945 “Spaghetti Bowl,” a game between American Army and Air Force serviceman that was played at Florence’s main stadium (which is home to Serie A’s Fiorentina to this day).
The 70s saw various American teams, players and executives visit the country to explore the possibility of bringing the sport to Italy and, in 1981, Italian Bowl I was played. “In the 80s, American football was very popular here,” said Barbara Allaria, FIDAF’s Press & Communication Officer, on a Google Hangout recently. “Georgio Armani was a sponsor and we hoped it could become one of the three most popular sports here. But it is very expensive to sponsor the teams and the equipment and the costs jeopardized growth. I suppose we will always be a niche sport here.”
A fascinating individual who lived the experience as a player and has been instrumental in bringing the Italian Bowl to Toledo is Nick Eyde, a 43-year-old real estate executive in Toledo who caught up with us while, coincidentally, he was driving with his family from Ohio to Washington, DC for the National Italian-American Federation Gala in late-October. Eyde played for Division III Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and he wasn’t ready to hang up his cleats when he finished. He attended a Scout’s Camp in Chicago, knowing he wasn’t NFL material but hoping maybe he could get a look from the Canadian Football League. That didn’t happen either, but Eyde did end up on a list of potential QBs for some of the European countries that played American football. He ended up getting invited to play in Austria for a season in 2001, and then switched over to Italy in 2002.
A love affair was born. Remembered Eyde:“The one year I played in Austria, everything was laid out so clearly: you’re going to practice this amount of times. Your pay will be this. All the expectations were laid out. Then the next year when I was negotiating to play in Rome, it was totally different. The first few emails were just about what an enchanting city Rome is, how my time there will change my life. Nothing about football at all. And it was all true.”
Eyde played—usually quite well, check the tape—for a variety of Italian teams through 2006, then, after a couple of years getting his business career going in the States, returned for a glorious final season in 2009, which is also when he fell in love with a local woman who would become his wife.
Parts of Eyde’s story served as an inspiration for another time American football in Italy flirted with the mainstream: John Grisham’s 2007 novel, Playing for Pizza. As Grisham told NPR when the book came out, “The first guy I met—he was this big, tough Italian guy, wonderful fellow. And he was telling me about this league and a lot of stories about American football there. And I asked him [if the players got paid]... ‘well, you know, the Americans get paid a little bit of money. Not much.’ And I said, ‘do Italians get paid?’ He said, ‘oh, no, we play it for pizza.’ And that's what they played for, the beer and pizza after practice and after the games.”
And so it goes, more or less, to this day. There are currently nine teams in the IFL’s top division. Rosters have a minimum of 45 players, primarily Italians. Each team can have two foreigners (almost always Americans) and one player who has dual passports, and only one of each of them can be on the field at the same time. Play in the top division is 11 v 11 and generally follows NCAA rules. Training starts in January, the regular season runs from March-June, and the championship is in July. Practices are usually Fridays-Sundays in the preseason and Fridays and Saturdays during the season (almost all at night), followed by games on Sundays. The import players get living expenses and perhaps a small additional stipend. The locals play for pride—and pizza.
Eyde compares the quality of play to high-level DIII football in the States, and his experience in the country so enchanted him that he stayed in touch with many of the sport’s higher ups over there even as he got married, had kids (who now have their own dual passports!) and had increasing success in real estate in Toledo. One year he brought former Detroit Lions Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims over to Italy. Another year he met up with Raffaello Pellegrini, an owner and leader of the sport in Italy, in Toledo, and they got to talking about bringing the game to the States.
Covid slowed things down a bit but Eyde says there was a “handshake” deal by the end of 2021 and by this fall, it was official, the Italian Bowl would be played at the Glass Bowl, Toledo University’s 26,000-seat football stadium.
It will serve as the title game for the season and a chance for Ohioans, and all who want to venture to Toledo for the occasion, to see the league in person. It will also be broadcast locally on Buckeye Broadband, with Eyde expecting some broader syndication in the U.S. and Italy as well.
While FIDAF and the IFL are most focused on growing the game in Italy, bringing their signature game to the States isn’t just about cultivating American fans. “Having the Italian Bowl in the US is a great opportunity for us to grow attention and focus,” said Allaria. “There are American football fans in Italy who only learned we exist because of the announcement of the Italian Bowl in Toledo.”
Ben Osborne has been writing, editing and producing content professionally for more than 25 years. A former Editor-in-Chief at SLAM and Bleacher Report and Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports, Osborne has also worked at the Washington Post and FOX Sports.