Spring football scores abroad, fumbles at home
No one could accuse the new World League of American Football of not being creative in its attempt to duplicate the success of its parent organization, the venerable NFL. Consider the matter of helmets, which the WLAF regards as a kind of appliance store you strap on your head. They have radios in there so coaches can advise quarterbacks on plays; they've got a "helmet cam," which produces the kind of footage Thor Heyerdahl might have gotten on a stormy day aboard the Kon Tiki. There are other innovations, too, such as a 35-second time limit between plays, to keep things moving. Yet what this all adds up to, in America anyway, is something that looks suspiciously like the USFL, the last league that tried and failed to take root in the spring, a time when sports fans traditionally turn their attention to baseball, as well as basketball and hockey playoffs. Seven weeks into the season, the six U.S. teams average an anemic 19,266 spectators per game, and Sunday telecasts on ABC draw ratings of about 2.1, as compared to about 13.5 for an NFL broadcast. Almost no one, it seems safe to say, has their chips and dip all ready for World Bowl Sunday, on June 9. But say fish and chips and the outlook is suddenly brighter.
The London Monarchs-like most other teams, a hastily assembled bunch of Americans too small or slow for the NFL, with a couple of European ex-soccer players added for the sake of an "international" flavor-- have been drawing an average of almost 38,000 to Wembley Stadium. The two other Old World franchises, the Barcelona Dragons and the Frankfurt Galaxy, have also been beating their U.S. counterparts at the box office, with average attendances of 30,529 and 23,167 respectively. This shouldn't be surprising. The NFL has been playing exhibition games in Europe, Canada and Japan over the last few years, looking to deepen and expand its market, with some success. Of course that doesn't explain why the Montreal Machine has been pulling in 38,608 customers in a city that could not support the Canadian Football League. Apparently the American product does have some universal appeal: about 750 million people in 50 countries watched the Super Bowl last January.
When the WLAF came along last March, many Europeans already knew a tackle from a touchdown. The British papers pay more attention to the WLAF than, say, The New York Times allots to The New York-New Jersey Knights. The European teams have also helped their cause by winning more than the other teams in the league. That is largely an accident, since at the time the WLAF held its complicated draft in February, team officials had scant knowledge of whom they were selecting. (When the smoke cleared, there were two Soviet players on the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, a defensive lineman and a linebacker). The European teams seem to have wound up with especially hardy stock, since their players are winning despite 12,000-mile road trips, and in the case of the Monarchs, British food. Almost every American on the team lost weight early on, and defensive tackle John Shannon dipped from 330 to 290. "With all the corn, peas and green beans mixed into everything, it looks to us like they're trying to get rid of leftovers," says Shannon. An American chef has since been imported to provide Cajun dishes and barbecued chicken for the Monarchs' training table.
Europeans seem just as hungry for a taste of American culture. At Wembley, the Monarchs, who are owned by English showbiz agent Jon Smith, provide the kind of glitzy spectacle one might find at the Orange Bowl. Before a game against Montreal, the crowd stood for "God Save the Queen," then swayed when that segued into Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." Next came the Crown Jewels, cheerleaders in navy blue tights. While they shook pompons, the players jogged in through a swirl of fireworks and smoke. "In the states, you call this 'the spring league'," says Shannon. "Here it's 'American foot-ball' " - a phrase that has come to connote a certain high-tech glamour.
Even as ABC is wondering whether it wants to renew its two-year, $24 million TV contract with the WLAF (the USA cable network has a four-year $24 million contract), there is speculation about expansion. Such growth would not take place in just the United States, where, after all, the San Antonio Riders average only 13,508, but also in Paris, Helsinki or Tokyo. As WLAF officials have already learned, there are plenty of opportunities out there, providing their helmet cams are pointed-in the right direction.