They met near Moscow’s famous Victory Park in February, ready for a bus ride to take on the team in Minsk, capital of Belarus. With snow and ice everywhere, Russian football players met and boarded the bus for the long ride to Minsk, capital of Belarus known as one of the last standing Communist dictatorships in Europe.
As the bus rolled along one coach held a map to assist the bus driver with directions while another coach wearing a USC Trojans sweatshirt drew plays on a small whiteboard, discussing them with other coaches for additional input.
The bus arrived in Minsk in the very early morning hours, greeted by a lit city sign that read: Мiнск (Minsk) along with the Cyrillic lettering for “hero city” the designation of honour given to cities that survived extraordinary battles in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). Using a press facility for a locker room the team prepared for the game.
Like baseball, American styled football has been exported to Russia although the growth of football has been slower. Russia’s main sports are hockey and soccer football, and soccer fans like to tease American football players about the slower pace of the game and the breaks taken after each down is played. Soccer is a faster paced game with few chances to rest as play is continuous and players must be competent at quickly adjusting from offense to defense.
Those things being said, you might be surprised that American styled football has been in Russia since the later Soviet years and as explained in a recent story in Russia Beyond the Headlines, seems to have caught the fancy of a few sports fans. Some would argue however that most fans are the football players themselves and the few in attendance to watch the games are primarily family and close friends.
According to the story in RBTH, the Russian American Football Championships have been held annually since 2002, though the story of American football’s development in Russia began back in the perestroika years. The first team, the Federaly (Federals), was founded in the town of Ozersk (Chelyabinsk Oblast), where a local hockey coach, Alexander Kovrigin, trained the first Soviet football players in the American version of the game. In those days, no suitable equipment was available in the Soviet Union, so they used hockey gear and motorcycle helmets. In 1987, the Federaly won the first American Football Championships in the Soviet Union.
So here we are in September 2013 and one Russian Football team, the Moscow Black Storm, says that they’re interested in talking with Tim Tebow after his recent release to free agent status. In America Tebow has the ability to draw fans, but would he represent enough drawing power to make an attendance impact in Russia?
While some NFL games are shown on Russian sport channels, the largest average attendance at a Russian American styled football game is around 500 fans. Small numbers in a country where games are often played in soccer stadiums designed to seat thousands. Except in larger cities, most games are played without goal posts and officials watch carefully to see if the kicker has cleared the field’s lower and more narrow soccer goal for the kicking game.
Some Russian teams are on the verge of shutting down for lack of revenue and the lack of a fan base is an obvious economic factor. Even so, some businessmen are banking on the sport eventually growing. But when and how fast?
Even the bigger and better funded teams play an amateur style at best. A player like Tebow would stand out immediately but he wouldn’t have the same caliber of supporting cast on the team. The season runs from January with championships played in May. Tebow might enjoy the challenge just to play the Russian Бронкос (Broncos) and exact a little revenge.
Team sizes are smaller in Russia and most players must play offense and defense. Substitutions are crucial as subs are expected to learn more than one position. The pay is low and travel is long–mostly long distance by bus. Because of the distances many teams schedule back to back games, playing a game on Saturday and then again on Sunday against the same team.
Some games are played inside indoor soccer facilities such as this game between the Moscow Black Storm and the Saint Petersburg Griffins.
Moscow Black Storm website: http://www.moscowblackstorm.ru
In Soviet days when American football was just beginning in Russia, the average player salary ranged from 500-to-1,000 rubles a month, two-to-three times more than the average worker’s salary in the Soviet Union. Today most teams refuse to discuss salaries and it is rumoured that a few of the smaller teams haven’t paid players for months.
Who needs a salary when the teams has cheerleaders? Known in Russian as a “support group” cheerleaders are so important that the Black Storm website explains it this way: they captivate the audience in a wave of positive emotions and good mood!
One can only imagine.
(photo credits: Roman Redkobaykin, Konstantin Konstantinov and Yulia Ivanova.)