Monarchs seek to rule the world

American football is spreading its wings again. Simon O'Hagan explores grounds for optimism
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS BEEN one of the most protracted plays seen in American football. Inexorably the yards have been ground out as the running backs set off only to be swallowed up by the defense. Touchdowns have proved elusive, but now, if the quarterback can get his pass right, the attacking team may at last be able to celebrate the final breakthrough.

We're talking big teams here. At one end, the National Football League (NFL), who run the sport in America, at the other the British Sporting Public (BSP), who have so far proved largely resistant to everything the NFL have thrown at them. That may be about to change, however, with the re-launch of the World League, the NFL's latest and most concerted attempt to spread the game beyond America's shores and establish it once and for all in that recalcitrant little state known as Great Britain, and a few others besides.

As with baseball's World Series, the world as in World League is a rather smaller place than most of us understand it to be. In fact, it's Europe. Six teams, from London, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, will play each other home and away starting on Saturday week (8 April), with the final, the World Bowl, bringing the top two teams together on the weekend of 17 June.

The World League itself is not new, although it has never adopted this format before. In 1991, when it was first launched, it comprised three European teams - from London, Barcelona and Frankfurt - and seven from America. It was a failure, not from the point of view of the European teams, which attracted some good crowds, but of the American ones. Alongside the NFL, they were irrelevant to most gridiron followers in the States, and after two seasons the World League hung up its helmet.

So what has happened since? First, a lot of NFL strategists have thought very hard about how to crack this particlar nut and have come up with a League which they think will build upon a reasonably solid base of European interest in the sport. More significantly, Rupert Murdoch has arrived on the scene with millions of dollars to spend.

Having won the rights to televise NFL games, Murdoch's Fox television station has become co-owner, with the NFL, of the World League, clearly seeing it as a route to even more markets in Europe. For the NFL, it is the biggest push yet towards their ideal of globalised American football.

Not that the British sporting public has exactly lacked opportunities to get hooked on American football, which in the context of the wider domestic sporting scene in 1995 has a pass, distinctly Eighties feel to it. Indeed, it is exactly 10 years since the sport reached the peak of its popularity here - in television terms - with Channel 4, commanding a record average audience of 3.1 million for its coverage during the 1985- 86 season.

The 1986 Super Bowl was watched by 3.6 million, an astonishing figure considering only about 6 million watch rugby union internationals, and for a period men like Joe Montana and William "The Refrigerator" Perry were almost as famous as our top footballers. But interest waned. For three years between 1990 and 1993 Channel 4 went as far as to give over most of Sunday evening to live coverage of a game, but with the viewing figures eventually down to below a million, it was back to late-night highlights packages. Audiences for these in the season that ended in January averaged 600,000.

Watching NFL games on television and being able to see top-class American football in the flesh are two different things, of course, but even Gareth Moores, the general manager of the London Monarchs, one of the teams competing in the World League, accepts that their biggest challenge lies in reaching beyond the hard core of American football fans and into the realm of floating voters. To that end World League representatives are taking the game into schools.

From the Monarchs' London office, which is also the NFL's headquarters in Britain, Moores talks about a "completely new outlook" for the sport here. "The UK has the most educated American football audience outside America," he says. "But most fans don't have proper access to the NFL and yearn for top-quality American football. That's what the World League will offer."

The Monarchs, winners of the World Bowl in 1991, can expect to be contenders again, having recruited impressively in the States. Their head coach is Bobby Hammond, who had six years as an NFL player with the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins and 12 as a coach, most recently with the Philadelphia Eagles. "It's like a cultural exchange," Hammond says of his new job.

The Monarchs' quarterback is Brad Johnson, on loan from the Minnesota Vikings, while the roster's seven Brits - each team has that number of local players - include the defensive lineman Lewis Capes, son of the mighty Geoff, and a veteran of the 1991 Monarchs, the running back Victor Ebubedike. The Scottish Claymores, whose home ground will be Murrayfield, have as their coach a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Doug Williams.

Having used Wembley as their home ground in 1991 and 1992 and found that their average home crowd of 30,000 felt a bit lost there, the Monarchs are to use White Hart Lane this time. There will be other changes more in keeping with the times - for example, the all-girl cheerleaders will be replaced by groups comprising both sexes.

The underlying philosophy remains the same, however - that American football is entertainment as much as sport, intended to appeal as much to the party animal as the family audience. If English football, which has itself benefited from a certain Americanisation in recent years, feels a little threatened by the return of the transatlantic variety, then perhaps the leisure centre and the theme park should feel threatened more.