“The Taylor Swift effect is real”: Prague Lions boss on why Europe is ready for American football

Mason Parker

Last year Mason Parker and a group of other US investors bought American football club Prague Lions, the sole Czech team in the burgeoning European League of Football. Why does Parker feel this is the right time to back the sport in Europe? And just how far can the Prague Lions go? I discussed these questions and more with the Texan-born businessman at the ground where the team trains.

What’s your own background, and what led you here to Prague?

“I grew up in Texas, but I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life and career in New York City, and I spent a lot of time in Europe.

“I left a career in finance – I’d worked for Deutsche Bank for 20 years – in October of 2022, specifically to go find my own projects and work on them.

Photo: Česká asociace amerického fotbalu

“Someone had reached out to me – they knew I invested in random projects, and I was a fan of sports – to see if I would potentially be a small, minority investor in this team.

“And I did some homework, my kind of desktop diligence, from the States and I got excited about it and decided to take a trip last June to visit the team, right before their first game of last season.”

So you acquired the Prague Lions last year, a year after the club joined the relatively new European League of Football. What was it that excited you about the project here?

“I got very excited about the concept of a pan-European grid-iron football league.

“I grew up playing soccer in the States, and in my lifetime I’ve seen it go from a youth and participation-driven sport to big business.

“And I feel that I saw an opportunity for an analogy here with grid-iron football in Europe, especially with the popularity of NFL games in Germany in particular, and in the UK.

“When I came to look at the team, just as a potential minority investment, I found out that they had financial difficulties and didn’t really have the capital to compete in a continental premier league.

“So that is what led to the opportunity for me to take over the team by putting some of my own capital in. Some of my friends and family are also investors and we put capital in.

“And from my perspective, being able to have control of the team, I have the time, I enjoy Europe and I’m able to relocate here.

“So all those things together created this opportunity, which I thought was valuable.”

One of the other investors is a member of the metal band Mötley Crüe. How did he come on board?

“I am connected to a group of friends and investors in Nashville.

“They have a very good network in Nashville, and the short answer is that’s how I came across [Mötley Crüe singer] Vince Neil and DeVante Parker, who’s an NFL player, both of whom have invested in the team.

“They were both brought to me by a common friend, and they got excited about the concept for the same reasons that I did.

“For a lot of American celebrities sports ownership has become a bit of a trend.”

“For a lot of American celebrities, or minor celebrities, sports ownership has become a bit of a trend. Ryan Reynolds and [laughs] I can’t remember the other actor’s name [Rob McElhenney] acquired Wrexham in the UK.

“So it’s appealing to people who have a bit of a following on Instagram to be involved. And it also helps to grow a European fan base for some of these people.”

I was reading that you have invested about USD 2 million so far. What has that gone on?

“It cost us a little over half a million to finish last season, which was the deal that we made with the league – that we needed to complete the season, which we did.

“In the off-season, in October and November, we built a good budget. We were able to build a very good budget because we’d actually been paying the bills for the second half of the 2023 season, so we knew how much things would cost; it wasn’t a lot of speculating.

“Based on that budget I went out to a group of family and friends, between 10 and 12 investors, and with that we raised a little over a million.

“Some of that’s been spent, because we’ve already bought helmets and uniforms, but largely that funds the budget for this season and next.”

Why do you think the time is now ripe for American football in Europe?

“American football is more popular in the States even than ever before. My background is really in renewables – sustainability, renewable power and renewable building products.

“American football is more popular in the States even than ever before.”

“The project that I was working on prior to this one was a renewable diesel business, and one of the things that I found very challenging about that, while I’m excited about sustainable technology, is it’s become very politicized and polarizing.

“No matter who you talk to when you’re trying to raise money for anything that has a sustainability angle, you end up having a political conversation. Especially when there are subsidies involved and the government is trying to incentivize investment in renewable technologies.

“I found that very off-putting. So one of the things that I like about this project, and possibly also what’s driving its popularity, is its ability to remain relatively apolitical.

“There have been some incidents. There was a player who kneeled during the national anthem, and that upset some people. But we’ve largely kept politics out of the sport, and I think that’s helped.

“In the US Neilsen Ratings measures over-the-air broadcasts. I don’t have the exact data in front of me, but if you go back five there might have been 60 to 65 of the top 100 broadcasts were football. Not just NFL Pro, but college football as well.

“But there another 35 or 40 that were other sports, the State of the Union, the Oscars… and that number, non-football events, has gone down and down and down. In fact for 2022 the number was something like in the 80s; 82 out of 100 were football events.

Photo: Česká asociace amerického fotbalu

“Then the numbers came out in January or February for 2023 and it jumped to 93.

“So in the US out of the top 100 most viewed broadcasts of the year there were only seven that weren’t football [laughs], which kind of blows the mind a little bit.

“Back in 2007 the Jacksonville Jaguars started playing in London, and they developed a very good brand and a following there. I think the NFL wisely saw that they could grow an audience overseas, and that means more revenue.

“Since then the NFL has continued to expand its international marketing and now it plays games every year in Germany, for example.

“Last season there were two consecutive weeks – not pre-season, during the regular season – with NFL games in Frankfurt and they were both big sellouts and big events.

“With the NFL putting that kind of money into the sport in Europe, that grows the popularity, so I think that helps our timing.

“I hate to say it, because it sounds a little trite, but the Taylor Swift effect is real.

“The Kansas City Chiefs are one of the teams that play in Germany, so they’re marketing their brand already there, and it happens to be that one of their star players is dating Taylor Swift [laughs]. Czech children know who Taylor Swift is.

“And then of course the Kansas City Chiefs go on to win the Super Bowl, and there are all the associated conspiracy theories in the US around it.

“But I think that definitely widens the overall awareness of the sport in Europe, so I think that’s helpful too.”

Taylor Swift kisses Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce  (Feb. 11,  2024,  Las Vegas) | Photo: John Locher,  ČTK/AP

Does the American league support the ELF in any way? Or does it see it as a rival?

“I have quite a few friends, contacts, player agents, who not long ago were at the NHL Combine, which is their big event looking at new talent.

“I wasn’t there, but I did hear there was quite a lot of buzz about the ELF at the NFL Combine. So people are aware that we’re doing this, and that it’s going on.

“I’ve also seen clips from our games highlighted on ESPN’s SportsCenter in the States, which is normally dedicated to American sports, so the fact that ESPN is paying attention helps too, I think.

“As far as the NHL’s official position on the ELF, I’m not aware that they have one. I don’t believe they really officially acknowledge us. They probably see us as a bit of a competitor.

“I believe, and from conversations with people who know people in the NFL, that there is a desire by the NFL to capture revenue in Europe.

“And I think that if they could put a conference in Europe, they probably would. You could come up with all the issues with that; scheduling alone, especially during the playoffs – if you had a continental team playing a California team, that’s quite a bit of travel, and there are environmental concerns, the stress on the athletes, etc.

“So I think that they have a bit of a problem on how to monetize Europe.

“And right now they’re doing so by flying whole teams over and playing a few events in Germany and the UK; I think they’re adding Spain.

“And that’s great for us. So from my standpoint, I think they should continue doing that. I think it grows the overall sport.

“We’re in a different season; they really start in August, right when we’re wrapping up our regular season, so you could almost make the case for year-round football.

“So I don’t see them really as a competitor. I think they probably think we’re just too small to be taken seriously by them at this point.”

The Prague Lions’ players are now in pre-season training. Who are the players? Where are they from? Are they pro, semi-pro?

“The way this league is set up, we recruit our players from within the country. We get to recruit Czech players and also Slovakian players, who are counted as domestic, so they don’t take import slots.

“The use of the import slots to create mentorship and culture, and also to get the skills needed to win games, is important.”

“Each team has 10 import slots, four of which can be American. It’s actually North American, so Canada and Mexico get counted, and six more from the rest of the world.

“We’ve filled our import slots. Our four Americans are… we did a regression analysis, because we’re math nerds, and the teams with the winningest records have Americans as quarter-back and receiver.

“We split our four American imports, two for offense and two for defence.

“And they’re all here now. We’re socializing. They’re learning their way around town and next week [second last week of April] we’ll start practicing together as a team.

“But the use of the import slots to create mentorship and culture, and also to get the skills needed to win games, is an important part of managing these teams.”

We’re speaking at the soccer club Slavoj Všehrad where the Prague Lions train. Do they also play here? Or where are your games held?

“Our games are at Viktoria Žižkov in Prague 3. We may move to a couple of other stadiums this season, so some of that is still being finalised.

“Our first game on May 26 will be at Viktoria Žižkov; we played most of our games there last season as well.

“I like this practice facility. It’s got a nice space here and the owner’s very supportive of us. We own a container there which we get to keep our stuff in, so this is great.

“I’d like to and play at either the Sparta stadium or the Slavia stadium.”

“A lot of our players that we house live nearby, so I like this neighbourhood as a place to have our training ground.

“But in terms of our stadium, Prague 3 is really great. There are a lot of expats there, it’s very centrally located next to the Main Train Station and it’s big enough.

“In the longer term I’d like to outgrow it [laughs] and play at either the Sparta stadium or the Slavia stadium. But we’ve got to get there.

“But for now we’re very happy playing in Prague 3.”

Clubs in the ELF are in several European countries, including Germany of course, France, Italy, Spain. Do all those travel costs represent a significant burden for what must still be a relatively small sport in Europe?

“The travel costs aren’t really that bad. We’re very fortunate here in Prague, because we’re so centrally located.

“We will travel to Hamburg for one game, and actually we’ll play it in Lübeck, so we’re going further than Hamburg this season. But they’re not in our conference; that’s an inter-conference match-up, and we won’t necessarily play them every season.

“So for us travel costs are really pretty reasonable. We take buses, we don’t fly. As the league expands and the teams get further away… I talk about Madrid sometimes, just because it is quite far, and they’ll probably have to fly to some of their games.

“Each team’s budget will be slightly different. Stadium costs vary greatly from city to city.

“So for us, honestly, the cost of sending a team on the road and the travel and accommodations and food, is about the same as the cost of hosting a game here in Prague.

“The difference is that for the Prague games we have ticket revenue [laughs].”

Most countries have a limited number of very popular sports. The Czechs already have soccer, ice hockey, winter sports. How much to you need to draw crowds in Prague? Or are most of your revenues coming from taking part in games elsewhere around Europe?

“One of the things that I liked about Prague as a market for this sport is that, from my asking people, there isn’t a clear third most popular sport.

“Clearly football and hockey are the most popular sports here. We don’t need to supplant them any more than the MLS needs to supplant Major League Baseball or the NFL in the US to be very big business.

“If third or fourth most popular slot is up for grabs, that’s a perfectly good objective for me, for the time being.

“One of the things that I like about recruiting Czech players is that kids see Czech names on the players’ jerseys.”

“When I do ask people what the third most popular sport is, I get quite a range. I’ve heard Oktagon and MMA, I’ve heard basketball, I’ve heard rugby and I’ve heard badminton.

“So as far as I can tell there’s plenty of room to put on a really good show and draw a crowd.

“We want it to be a family-friend event. One of the things that I like about recruiting Czech players is that kids in the stadium see Czech names on the back of the players’ jerseys.

“I joke to some of our own staff that our own best player might be 10 years old right now, because the culture is really developing. The earlier kids start playing and start developing the technique, the better they’ll be.

“So we don’t need to get that big. I’m a big hockey fan as well and I used to have season tickets for the New York Rangers, which I gave up to relocate here.

“But I went to a Sparta match and there was around 15,000 people in that arena and it felt quite full and it was very full of energy.

“If we could get to one of those two larger stadiums, the ones Slavia or Sparta play in, and get 10, 12, 15 thousand people I think we’d be going really well.

“And that’s kind of the near-term objective. We don’t need to have 60,000-person crowds, right now.”

My final question, Mason: Where would you like to see the Prague Lions in, let’s say, 10 or 15 years?

“If you win a championship, you get a really big ring [laughs], and I would like to have one of those within 10 years.

Mason Parker | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“We’re serious about this. We’ve got the money for it, I’m moving here, we’ve got some investors who are well-known: DeVante Parker, Vince Neil and Maurice Jones-Drew, who’s recently become an investor as well, and they’re all influential people.

“We’ve got backing, we’ve got the ability to grow our name brand, to get our brand out there and raise awareness.

“So within 10 years I’d like to be filling one of the larger stadiums in Prague.

“And we’re a summer sport, we don’t really compete with soccer and hockey when it comes to what you’re doing this weekend.

“So I think we should be one of the main attractions for the summer time in Prague.”