American Football: Olympians capture the championship: British final - The British domestic season had a low-key finale yesterday

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The Independent Online
THE CURTAIN came down on the British American football season yesterday, as the London Olympians defeated the Glasgow Lions 40-14 in the NDMA League final, thereby adding the domestic crown to the European championship they won last month.

However, the Olympians enjoyed their success against a backdrop of growing uncertainty. Launched a decade ago on the strength of Channel 4's coverage of the American version of the game, domestic gridiron flourished briefly in the late 1980s but may now be in terminal decline.

The 1987 final between the London Ravens and the Manchester All-stars attracted a healthy audience of 13,000 to Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road stadium. Six years on, both the Ravens and All- stars are no more, just two of many sides who have perished beneath the twin burdens of ever-increasing expenditure and dwindling revenue.

The days of five-figure crowds and major venues have long since gone. Yesterday's show-case game was witnessed by around 1,000 loyalists in the distinctly mundane surroundings of Maidenhead Rugby Club.

Media support for domestic gridiron traditionally has been poor. The British product is correctly perceived as vastly inferior to its American counterpart in terms of playing ability, and has been ignored as a consequence. It is a justified source of resentment within the game that the same quality criteria are not applied to British basketball and ice hockey, equally pale imitations of the North American product.

Lack of money and profile have seen attendances, a vital source of revenue, dwindle alarmingly. Four years ago, the league's leading teams would expect average crowds of 1,000. Today, they would be happy to achieve half that number, although most have been spared the embarrassment of a London Olympian game last season in which the number of supporters present were outnumbered by players on the sidelines.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, comes from within. Divisive internal squabbling between rival leagues and personalities has drastically weakened an already unstable infrastructure. 'There are too many egos in this business,' said Gary Marshall, director of the Gateshead Senators. 'We're like an inverted pyramid, with all the egos at the top and no one new coming in at the bottom. That must change, or the game will not have a future.'

The precarious position in which the sport finds itself seems to have led the warring factions to declare a truce. An ambitious plan for next season calls for all sides to operate under the auspices of the British American Football Association (Bafa), the game's governing body.

'There is a feeling that everyone involved has realised that it is time to pull together,' the league chairman, Ron Weisz, said. 'We have a meeting planned for September when hopefully things will be sorted out once and for all. We have to get our priorities and our finances in order.'

The real victims are the players, most of whom perform without financial reward, and who have reached a sufficiently high level of ability to provide entertaining and competitive matches.

None can realistically aspire to performing in the NFL, but the qualities of players like London running back Richard Dunkley, his colleague Leroy Innis, and Glasgow's sure-handed wide receivers, Scott Couper and Andy McGowan, merit a greater profile than they currently enjoy.

Dunkley was yesterday's hero, his four touchdowns and close to 200 rushing yards ultimately subduing a spirited Glasgow effort, enabling the Londoners to retain the title they won last season.

As Dunkley celebrated his nomination as the game's Most Valuable Player, thoughts were already turning to the future. 'We'd love to go back into Europe and win that competition again,' he said. 'Then after that we'd be looking to win the British title for the third time in a row, always assuming that there is a league next season.'

There almost certainly will be, but for a sport which has had to endure more than its fair share of hardship, the most important battles have still to be won.