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American Football in Hungary: Final Breakthrough Within Field Goal Distance

American football has built a massive fan base in a matter of years in Hungary. With a steep growth curve ahead, there seems to be no better time for would-be corporate sponsors to get in the game.

Kornél Bachrathy, secretary general of MAFSZ (left) and Márk Bencsics, QB of the Hungarian national team and NFL commentator on Sport1, pictured at a Hungary vs. Slovakia game in the summer of 2017.

When local cable channel Sport1 broadcast its first National Football League (NFL) games back in 2004, few would have thought that less than one and a half decades later American football would have gathered a massive following in Hungary. The Super Bowl, which took place very early on Monday morning (February 5) local time, was expected to have drawn an audience of around 200,000.
The Hungarian Association of American Football (MAFSZ) is in charge of organizing three adult and two junior divisions in the country. As Kornél Bachrathy, its secretary general, tells the Budapest Business Journal, the effort was initially hampered by obstacles typically faced by SMEs. Everything needed to be built from the ground up. The hard work seems to have paid off, though. Twenty-four teams, more than 2,000 registered players and an ever-improving image are among the main achievements of the past 13 years. “We have 15,000 Facebook followers. Many conventional sports would only dream of such a figure,” Bachrathy says. Although no official game attendance statistics are available, many first or second division soccer teams have reason to envy the Hungarian Football League (HFL). In Székesfehérvár, for instance, where the first dedicated American football stadium in the country has been built, well over 1,000 attend regularly. Other HFL hubs in the countryside draw similar crowds.

The Soccer Lobby

“Infrastructure is key here, and problems abound, especially in Budapest, since there is no dedicated facility available,” Bachrathy notes. “You cannot compete with the soccer lobby. They have so much money that you just can’t rent football stadiums for HFL games.”
Given what little access MAFSZ has to funding from the government or tax payers, it borders on a miracle that it has gotten this far. Unlike spectator sports such as soccer, water polo, handball, ice hockey and basketball, American football is not eligible for so-called TAO funds, which come from specifically earmarked corporate income taxes.
Annual government funds to MAFSZ total a meager HUF 3.5 million. By contrast, in December, Magyar Közlöny (the official state gazette of Hungary) said the government would spend HUF 37 billion on soccer in 2018. According to independent investigative website atlatszo.hu, by 2020 at least HUF 215 bln will have been spent on stadiums since the Orbán cabinet returned to power in 2010.
“Ours is not an Olympic sport and no significant team achievement is to be expected from us; therefore, we’ve got no chance to become eligible for TAO,” the secretary general explains. And it is also irrelevant that American football’s popularity already outshines several other conventional Olympic sports like wrestling or volley ball. Bachrathy says last year’s volley ball national final was witnessed by 400 fans at the venue of Pénzügyőr, a Budapest club; HFL’s final, the Hungarian Bowl has seen attendances of as much as 6,000.

Consequently, MAFSZ operates mainly from membership fees and sponsorship money. The same goes for the clubs. Due to the limited finances, there are still only a handful of foreign players that actually get something of value for their services like a rented apartment. Most players are involved on an amateur basis. Municipality support is what usually makes a huge difference in terms of finance.

Sponsors Wanted

“Our product is perceived as a lot more professional than it truly is,” Bachrathy says. “This marketable and enjoyable product is bound to bring in more sponsors and more government funds over time.”
For now, large chunks of sponsorship money can only be dreamed of. At this point, HUF 1-2 million buys you a team name sponsor title at any HFL club, which is enough for nothing in any other sport with decent media coverage. Bachrathy argues with reason that there is hardly a better choice than sponsoring American football in Hungary in terms of value for money.
“If you are a businessman and you consider funding sports clubs, HFL ensures nationwide visibility for a fraction of the financial resources you would normally need to achieve the same elsewhere,” he says. “It is a positive brand with huge growth potential and extensive media coverage. In short, now is the time for sponsors to get in the game.”

A Hail Mary Move

“Digi broadcast the Hungarian Bowl live for the first time two years ago. It was more like a Hail Mary pass on their part, but it worked. The venture proved to be a hit,” says Kornél Bachrathy. Interest climbed to new heights in 2016, to the extent that the newly built MTK football stadium in Budapest had to be rented to host the event. The outcome was an entertaining final in front of packed tribunes and a great show in good old American fashion.
Of course, in terms of viewership, the Hungarian Bowl is still not anywhere near events like the Champions League Final, the Formula 1 Grand Prix races, or the Super Bowl itself. The latter is also famous for its whopping advertising costs (a 30-second commercial will have set back the advertisers USD 5 million this year). Even if it wanted to, the Hungarian Bowl can’t capitalize on its own hype since TV channels in Hungary sell advertising time in yearly bundles.
Digi clearly treats HFL as a valuable product. The number of games broadcast per season will rise from 10 in 2017 to 15 this year, while its game day magazine show will be an hour long, compared to the previous 30-minute shows. The channel is available in 1.5 million households, so the potential for a wide outreach is there. The fact that Hungary will host the American football 2020 FISU University World Championship should further raise the profile of the sport.
“The biggest media value is attached to our signature events such as the Hungarian Bowl and the games of the national team. We do everything in our power to make them a highly memorable occasion which helps raise the media value of our brand as well,” Bachrathy adds.