ON 24 OCTOBER Almanack described the feeding frenzy then taking place in the US over 'expansion franchises' - the creation of two new teams in the National Football League, at venues to be decided by the NFL's existing owners. Shortly afterwards the Charlotte-based Carolina Panthers obtained a franchise, and last week the process was completed when, to the shock and amazement of most observers - and indeed most of its own citizens - the other franchise was awarded to Jacksonville, Florida.
Jacksonville was for a long time the longest of longshots in the franchise race: indeed, at one stage in the summer they were so far behind that the city actually dropped out of the bidding process, only to re-emerge later. It is ranked only 55th in the country as a television market, the lowest of all the bidders, and the team will play in a renovated arena. The situation is a little like Exeter City being awarded a place in next year's Premiership over the heads of Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and Derby County.
So what persuaded the owners that the Jacksonville Jaguars should join the NFL in 1995? According to Valerie Brown of the Jacksonville Mayor's Office, the key was the personality of the franchise leader, a Connecticut shoe executive called J Wayne Weaver. 'The NFL owners just fell in love with him,' Valerie says. 'They really wanted him to be part of their club.' And the Jacksonville citizens feel the same way: 'The partying has not stopped since we got the franchise,' Valerie admits, a little woozily. 'Businesses have shut down . . . this town is ecstatic.'
Cynics point out that, despite start-up costs of dollars 200m, the franchises rarely bring the expected wealth, fame and happiness to winning cities: USA Today's Tom Weir wrote last week that 'No one suffers like an NFL expansion franchise'. Just don't try and tell them that in Jacksonville.
A serious question of sporting taste
THE BBC's A Question of Sport has committed an appalling gaffe. A recent edition of the programme included a what-happened-next item involving a basketball player, incensed at having his basket disallowed, head-butting the concrete stanchion below the basket and falling to the floor. Neither team correctly described 'what happened next', and when David Coleman gave the answer, the studio audience erupted with laughter as, no doubt, did many of the viewers at home. Coleman said ' . . . he head-butted the stanchion and knocked himself out]'.
But the programme's researchers had not discovered the true nature of the incident: the player, Slobodan Jankovic, a 28-year-old from the Greek club Panionios, didn't just 'knock himself out'. He shattered his second, third and sixth vertebrae, and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Coleman, of course, had no way of knowing this. Nor, say the BBC, did the programme's researchers, who received a tape that did not show the aftermath of the accident.
But plenty of basketball fans knew what had happened, and a number have since contacted the BBC asking for explanations and apologies. They have all received individual replies, but there will be no broadcast apology. 'Obviously, it was our understanding that the player was not seriously hurt,' a programme spokesperson says. 'Sadly, we now know this was not the case, and are very sorry for the upset caused. As a direct result our checking procedures have now been tightened up.'
The only remotely good thing about this sad episode is that Jankovic is said to have since recovered a little movement in his upper body. He recently returned to Athens from the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital, and was given an emotional reception by his fans and former team- mates at a benefit game organised in his honour.
THERE has been a healthy response to Almanack's request for daft football club names. The current favourite: Racing Club de Blackheath, nominated by James Hanning, of London SE3. So far, no suggestions from Scotland: any advance on Linlithgow Rose?
WHILE on the topic of names, can anyone explain the National Basketball League's weird obsession with various kinds of feline? The following names all appeared on last week's fixture list: Brixton Topcats; Birmingham Quality Cats; Barking & Dagenham Bobcats? Also, what, pray, is a bobcat? Do they really bark? And is there a dark secret behind the name Bury Lobos? It's all very Rivals sling the arrows of outrage
THE dispute that is tearing at the heart of British darts is intensifying. Almanack was there on Wednesday morning as some of the most famous names in the game strode up to the entrance of the Lakeside Country Club at Frimley Green, hub of the world game, to begin their protest against the sport's establishment. A bedraggled gaggle of photographers and a camera from Sky Sports looked on. Jocky Wilson was narrowly missed by an oncoming milk float; the local dairy can consider themselves fortunate.
A brief synopsis for non-darters: a clutch (a flight? a wing?) of top players, including Messrs Wilson, Eric Bristow and John Lowe, have detached themselves from the British Darts Organisation and announced their own 'World Darts Championship', timed to clash with the BDO's Embassy World Professional Darts Championship next month. The BDO's championship is to be covered, as usual, by the BBC. Needless to say, Sky Sports have stepped in for the WDC: both channels are delighted with their deals.
But behind the jolly placards were some worried faces. The players - now excluded from many of the events they used to play - have taken a big risk. Over their mid-morning pints on Wednesday they discussed tactics and mused on the response of darts fans to the confusion at the top of the game. 'The people just want to see us play,' one ex-world champion insisted.
Considerable ill-will has grown up between the two sides. Mike Gregory, last year's Embassy runner-up, has defected back from the breakaway group: his former colleagues accuse him of betrayal and are, according to Gregory, 'trying it on' for the pounds 80,000 they allege his defection has cost them. This is heavy stuff. Players - on both sides of the divide - are under intense pressure. Robert Holmes, the BDO's spokesman, is scathing about their rivals. 'If they just wanted to set up a darts circus, where they went out and earned the money from exhibitions, then fine,' he says. 'But they can't start dictating what the BDO does with its world championship. You can't have anybody doing that.'
The WDC, on the other hand, insists that all involved in the breakaway were forced to act by the apathy of the BDO. And questioned about the Gregory defection, Marcus Robertson, a WDC spokesman, criticises the BDO's pressurising tactics: 'All the players,' he says, 'have had regular phone calls from the BDO people. It's been very sticky from their point of view.' There are even nasty rumours of pressure being put on players' wives.
It is all a far cry from the spangled heroics of the early 1980s, when darts dominated television and inspired Martin Amis to create Keith Talent, the darts-crazy anti-hero of the best-selling novel London Fields. Keith had a simple view of his heroes, when their lives were still simple: 'They were men. Men, mate. Men. All right? Men. They wept when they wept, and knew the softnesses of women, and relished their beer with laughter in their eyes, and went out there when it mattered to do what had to be done with the darts.' Those were the days, Keith.
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