American football: Monarchs look to wider market as World League adopts new identity

The start of another season brings a further attempt to broaden the appeal of American football in Europe. Nick Halling reports
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THE World League of American Football, launched amid much fanfare and hyperbole in 1991, is officially dead. However, that does not mean that the ambitious plans to foster the development of the gridiron game in Europe have failed. Instead, the World League has been renamed the NFL Europe League, a move which may cause initial confusion for die-hard fans, and may mystify the casual observer yet further, but which nevertheless confirms a new closeness between the parent National Football League in the United States and its transatlantic offspring.

Similarly, the London Monarchs, winners of the inaugural World Bowl seven years ago, are no more. Now they are the England Monarchs, and as the name suggests, they will be taking their show on the road. They will play three games at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, beginning tomorrow afternoon against the Frankfurt Galaxy, but will then play matches in Bristol and Birmingham before returning to their London bases.

"It makes sense to take the Monarchs to the country, and I think that's a trend you'll see continuing," said the league's president, Oliver Luck. "It is a move aimed at responding to the many fans we know live outside of the greater London area."

In reality, it is also an attempt to lift attendances at Monarchs home games above the 10,000 mark, where they have stubbornly remained since 1995, the year the league returned after a two-season hiatus. In 1991, the year the London franchise were all-conquering, gates at Wembley averaged 40,000: such attendances may be unrealistic now, but Luck is not the only one to be frustrated by a sense of potential unfulfilled.

Of course, a winning team would also help, and after enduring four consecutive losing campaigns, gridiron fans in England have little to shout about. That may change: at their training camp in Atlanta last month, the Monarchs looked impressive, with Wally Richardson, on loan from the NFL's Baltimore Colts, looking the part at quarterback. Equally promising is the running back Shon Mitchell, a player who has attracted the attention of the San Francisco 49ers. If Mitchell maintains the form he showed in Georgia, the Monarchs should prove quite a handful.

Elsewhere, the Galaxy have a new coach in Dick Curl, while stability has been the watchword for the Scottish Claymores, Amsterdam Admirals, and Rhein Fire, all of whom will be hoping to relieve the Barcelona Dragons of their title. All six teams will wear designs which were thought to appeal to Continental tastes.

It may have a new name and a fresh look for its franchises, but NFL Europe retains its sense of optimism. "We're well past being concerned with the short-term," Luck said. "No dependence on attendances. Thanks to a significant growth in sponsorship and television revenues, our gates, while still important, are not as critical as they were two or three years ago. This promises to be our best season to date."