American football: Young guns struggle to gain recognition

Nick Halling on the new season of the World League of American Football
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With the Grand National, the Coca-Cola Cup final, the London Marathon, the FA Cup semis, the Boat Race and numerous major events around the world, April is traditionally a hectic month on the sporting calendar. It is also the month the World League of American Football chooses to launch its 11-week season and wonders why it struggles to generate its fair share of publicity.

Not that certain sections of the national media could ever be accused of generosity towards Europe's six-team professional gridiron organisation. The suspension of the original league after two seasons in 1992 still rankles; the return in 1995 was greeted with a less than warm embrace.

In the UK, the London Monarchs are dismissed as a failure because the average gates of 12,000 compare poorly with the 1991 throngs of 40,000. What is overlooked is that the Monarchs attract more support than most club rugby teams of both codes, while many of the capital's Nationwide League clubs would gladly settle for five-figure gates.

Yet, given the activity elsewhere this weekend, the Monarchs' season- opener against the Frankfurt Galaxy at Stamford Bridge tomorrow will not be high on the media's priority list. A similar fate awaits the Scottish Claymores, who begin the defence of their World Bowl trophy in Amsterdam against the Admirals today.

Despite this resistance, the World League is making steady progress in its long-term quest for credibility. Last season, attendances across six franchises averaged 17,209, an 18 per cent increase on 1995. This year, advance ticket sales are close to 50 per cent higher than in 1996.

Perhaps even more significantly, the National Football League's team owners have approved the World League's business plan through to the end the century. As the NFL owns 50 per cent of the European operation in a joint partnership with the Fox television network, its endorsement is crucial to long-term stability.

"I am very excited about the 1997 season," the WLAF president, Oliver Luck, said. "Not only will the standard of play be higher than ever, but we are going into the season with a solid foundation after a 1996 season that saw us make real progress."

For the first time, all 30 NFL teams have allocated participants to the World League, with 75 players spread across the six teams. The quarterback position looks particularly well served, with players of the calibre of Stan White of the New York Giants in London, Seattle's Jon Kittna in Barcelona and Chad May of Arizona with Frankfurt. All will hope to emulate the achievement of Brad Johnson, who used his experience with the Monarchs in 1995 to land a multi-million dollar contact as the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback.

"Most teams understand the value of the World League," Dan Reeves, head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, said. "This is a great opportunity for these young players to get some good competition and improve their skills to the point where they can compete at our level."

"We have a lot of young guns with great arms, which should make for exciting football for fans across Europe," Luck said. "I'm sure the advances we make this year will mean that when the opening game of the 1998 season comes around, we will be celebrating the increasing importance of the League on the sporting calendar."

The anticipation is that if the young guns live up to their potential over the next three months, the World League will become increasingly difficult to ignore.