American Football: Plan for smaller World League: The London Monarchs may be transplanted to Millwall in 1994

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The Independent Online
THERE are strong similarities between the National Football League and God. Both are inflexible, make decisions from on high, have millions of followers, generate more income than most countries, but still worry about money. Both face strong competition from other sources. And both move in mysterious ways. Especially the NFL.

One less than pious American magazine went so far as to suggest that the initials stand for No F------ Logic. You won't catch Nick Priestnall being so irreverent. But the NFL's wide receiver in London must wish he knew whether he is to be involved in the next play.

Priestnall, European director of the World League, has just discovered that the London Monarchs' fate will not after all be decided this week. The 28 NFL owners, meeting in Palm Springs, are too preoccupied with collective bargaining and expansion of their own league to bother with some backwater set-up that has already stiffed them for dollars 40m ( pounds 27m). So Priestnall must now chew his nails until May to see if it's the End-of-the-World League.

The future looks glum for Britain's three gridiron magazines if owners pull the plug. Steve Anglesey, editor of the weekly First Down, is not over-optimistic. 'The NFL owners are such an obnoxious bunch of greed-heads. I'm sure they would like to fob off the Europeans with just tour games and one-offs.' But Priestnall, as befits a man who has spent much of his life in marketing and public relations, is more gung-ho. 'I have heard it said that their avowed intention is to bring back the World League bigger and stronger.'

And so they should. After all, it was only the Americans who spoilt an otherwise successful concept. The three European sides attracted good crowds, and Frankfurt made a dollars 600,000 profit last season, with bigger gates than Eintracht. But the very place where success seemed assured shunned the out-of- season games, claiming the teams would get a thumping from any college side. US viewing figures, vital to continued support, were disastrous.

So now it is time for Plan B: a European-only league in 1994 with American players. Initially there will be just six teams: London, Frankfurt and Barcelona along with, probably, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and an All-Scotland side. By 1995 two more would be added, perhaps Manchester and Madrid.

Priestnall, who confesses he does not actually understand the game's intricacies, believes American television restrictions did the Monarchs no favours. 'We had to kick off for some games at 7pm on Sunday night, which is not a good time to attract family audiences.' World Bowl champions in 1991, London were further hamstrung last season when draft choices heavily favoured American sides. The Monarchs' first-season success against Sacramento, San Antonio, Orlando, Ohio and others was slightly less well received than when Sri Lanka stuffed England at cricket.

A smaller, compact league will make more sense to NFL owners facing soaring wage bills in their own backyard. But why should they bankroll a Mickey Mouse league? Because Europe offers a vast new market for the NFL logo. We're talking Imelda Marcos shoe money here. Merchandising outside North America raked in dollars 350m last year, and the NFL has just tied up a deal for one million hats to be sold through McDonald's in Germany.

Still, with just a vague promise from a gang not exactly renowned for their integrity, it is a wonder that the league is still employing a dozen people throughout Europe. You would imagine that Priestnall, working from a small office near Wormwood Scrubs prison, could probably pay the phone bill with the small change from his pocket. But he claims he is busier than a Hollywood mirror salesman. For a start he is looking at other sites besides Wembley, which is expensive, too big and often unavailable. Top of the list are the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace and Millwall's swish new stadium, where anticipated crowds of around 25,000 would fill the ground nicely.

He is also organising a nationwide series of clinics from Gillingham to Cardiff starting on 4 April, where youngsters between 11 and 18 will be encouraged to try the sport; setting up games in Barcelona and London (the Super Bowl champions Dallas play Detroit at Wembley on 8 August); overseeing coaching seminars, talking to potential sponsors and working with the Sports Council to encourage schools.

'I want to widen the game at grassroots level,' he says. US scholarships for promising players are being lined up for next year, and Priestnall has high hopes that within the next three years, an NFL regular-season game will take place in London.

But is he just scrubbing the decks of the Titanic? Is American football set to suffer the same fate here as soccer in the US, condemned for ever to be lumped with underwater hockey and frisby golf? The NFL mafia's own god, Mammon, may save the day. The World League will probably be a small price to pay if it means all Europe can be persuaded that a baseball hat saying Broncos represents the apex of fashion.

For further details of coaching clinics from the NFL, telephone (081) 964 2244.

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