Monarchs in a grid-locked state

American Football: Simon O'Hagan finds the men of the World League in a battle for survival
Click to follow
A WET Wednesday morning in suburban south-east London. In a former police section house - a barracks-type residence where young officers stayed during training - members of the London Monarchs American football team are loading up with carbohydrates before the training session which awaits them a mile away at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace. Huge men carrying huge plates of food to their tables in the canteen, with its view over the back of grey skies and dripping trees.

We know that the life of the professional sportsman is not all glamour. But there is a gloom about this place that cannot be ascribed just to the weather. For these are depressing times for the Monarchs, the London representatives in the newly inaugurated World League, which marks the latest attempt to sell American Football to a non-American audience.

We are in Upper Norwood - or Upper Nowhere as the players call it. They don't like living here. It's pretty basic, it's miles from the West End, and they see the members of the league's other teams living it up on the Continent in swish hotels. Preferential mini-cab rates for the round trip to Stringfellow's is small compensation for all that. But then the World League itself, at least as far as Britain is concerned, is suffering from the same problem - pushed to the edge of the sporting map.

Given the history of American football in Britain, the World League was always going to be a gamble. But it has turned into an even bigger one than the organisers realised. The Eighties gridiron boom, when Channel 4's coverage drew more than 3 million viewers, has, it seems, given way to Nineties indifference.

Some of the World League's problems are of their own making, chief among them the fear that exists that the League may not be around for long. After all, it has happened before. In 1991, the World League of American Football was launched, combining European and American teams, but it foundered after its second year.

Now it is back, exclusively European, in a joint venture linking the twin forces of the NFL and Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV. Supposedly, standards are higher; supposedly, the marketing, packaging and promotion are better. But the World League is still struggling to convince the public that this time it's for real.

The message was clear from the moment last month when the Monarchs made their first appearance at White Hart Lane. Hoping for the 30,000 that used to come and watch them when they played at Wembley in the days of the World League mark I, they found they were again playing to a two-thirds empty stadium - and in the case of the Tottenham ground that meant 9,000. And when the fans turned on the Monarchs' management for what they saw as shoddy levels of entertainment and organisation, it was time for drastic action - tickets were cut from a top price of pounds 27.50 to pounds 12.50.

There was also the problem of the team. They couldn't win at home. Travelling, though, seems to agree more. Before last night's 27-22 win at Barcelona, their record read played six, lost four, won two, the two victories coming at Edinburgh and Rhein Fire, the Dusseldorf team. As Dave Hoffman, a middle linebacker, says: "It's nice to get out of this place."

The Monarchs' mediocre form has played a part in the lack of interest, their two other home matches having drawn 8,000 and 10,000. Gerry Anderson, one of the British players in a team largely comprising Americans says: "We're very annoyed. Nobody likes to back a loser."

Then there is the vexed question of the role of the Brits. Much was made of the fact that, in home matches, a minimum of seven locals would have to be in the starting line-up or on the bench, and a minimum of three in away matches. But the feeling among them is that they could have been given more exposure.

Lewis Capes, son of Geoff, is one of the Brits. "I'm quite pleased with the way I'm playing, but I'm not getting on as much as the starters, maybe at the end of the first or second quarter. It's difficult to get going." But, as Capes says, the Monarchs' American coach, Bobby Hammond, "doesn't see us as Brits; he sees us as players to be treated like any of the others".

Capes thinks more could have been done to get the British players' names in the public eye. "I did a lot of publicity shots for use on advertising hoardings. I drive around London, but I don't see them anywhere."

For Victor Ebubedike, another home player, the whole thing is "political". He can't understand, for example, why television will show hours of "boring" snooker, but very little of the World League. Even Alastair MacPhail, press officer for the Monarchs, is puzzled as to why the Sun, a Murdoch publication, includes so little about the team.

It was against this background that George Krieger, a vice-president of Fox TV, paid a visit to London last weekend to take soundings on what could be done to improve the situation. Pete Abitante, World League representative in London, says Krieger's mood was "very up-beat". "From a marketing point of view, London is completely different from the other centres," Abitante says, and it is true that in Frankfurt and Barcelona the fans are lapping up their World League. "The audience here is more sophisticated, but this is an investment we're being patient with," Abitante adds. "The fans need to be convinced we're here to stay, but we're prepared to wait until we have done that." The time commitment is four years, the financial commitment pounds 40m. Meanwhile, in Upper Nowhere, it's still raining.