World League's big chance

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The Independent Online
For five years, the World League of American Football has been searching for a personality with which to sell itself. In the ample form of William Perry, it hopes to have found it.

The league was set up by the National Football League, which runs the sport in the United States, as a vehicle for spreading American football's global popularity. Back in 1991, when it was launched, the World League consisted of teams on both sides of the Atlantic. Somewhat surprisingly, it was those in Europe that proved more successful.

The London Monarchs, for whom Perry will play, were originally based at Wembley Stadium and regularly outdrew the England football team as they swept to victory in the inaugural World Bowl (though cynics questioned how many seats had actually been sold).

In the game's back yard, though, the infant league quickly acquired a second-rate image. It may have been American football, but it sure wasn't the NFL.

The television audience was minute, and after two seasons, disappointed by the domestic response and mindful of the expense - never a consideration far from the mind of the average NFL executive - the new league was axed.

There were many who argued this was premature and that the NFL risked allowing basketball to gain a global grip. Emboldened by a massively lucrative new television contract with Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, the NFL relaunched the World League last year.

This time there would only be European teams, and, with Murdoch's worldwide television backing, its chances of success seemed brighter. But, as the baseball owners in America discovered after the controversial players' strike came to an end at much the same time, sports administrators treat the fans with contempt at their peril.

After moving to White Hart Lane, Tottenham's football ground, the Monarchs of 1995 failed to generate anything like the interest of their 1991 counterparts, their five home games attracting just over 50,000 fans in total. A second British team, the Edinburgh-based Scottish Claymores, encountered a similarly lukewarm response.

This time, instead of ditching the World League, the NFL chose to change its marketing strategy and introduce a couple of high-profile personalities. Hence the arrival this month of Perry, and the announcement that Gavin Hastings, the former Scotland rugby union captain, will kick for the Claymores.

Perry will earn the same $13,500 that his team-mates get for a season's work, but he will also receive around $100,000 from a promotional contract. While the team is billeted in the Monarchs' south London headquarters, Perry is staying with his wife and family at a luxury hotel a few miles away.

On Sunday, Perry and Hastings will face each other at White Hart Lane as the 1996 season kicks off with a game between the Monarchs and the Claymores. No doubt for both players, and for most of those there, the scoreline will be all important. But for the money men back in New York it will be an irrelevance compared with the figure that really matters: the attendance.