Three-pronged attack in quest for credibility

Nick Halling on this weekend's return of the World League of American Football
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The Independent Online
It has been talked of as a make or break season, and while that assessment may be simplistic, there is much at stake when the World League of American Football resumes this weekend.

The six-team league, with franchises in London, Scotland, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Barcelona and Amsterdam, is a joint venture between the NFL, and Fox Sports, Rupert Murdoch's US-based broadcasting arm. Originally launched in 1991, it lasted just two seasons before being suspended. The same fate could befall it again although, given recent developments, that seems unlikely.

In order to secure its future, the World League must build on its 1995 average attendances of 14,500, increase its television viewing base, and effect an improvement in the overall quality of play. "What our board of directors wants to see this year goes beyond money, profit and loss," Oliver Luck, the World League's president, said. "They want the feeling that we're on the right path, and from what I've seen so far, we will be able to demonstrate significant progress both on and off the field."

The signs are certainly encouraging. In Britain, the arrival of William "Refrigerator" Perry in London and the conversion of Gavin Hastings from rugby union have helped stimulate interest in the London Monarchs and the Scottish Claymores. When they meet at White Hart Lane on Sunday, the attendance is certain to exceed last season's disappointing opening-day gate of less than 9,000.

In Dusseldorf, the Rhein Fire have already sold more than 20,000 tickets for tonight's derby against the Frankfurt Galaxy. Last season, the Fire's best attendance was 19,000. "All six teams have sold more season tickets than at this stage last year," Luck said. "That doesn't mean we expect 45,000-strong crowds, but if we're in the high teens and low 20's, everyone should be happy."

Television exposure has increased significantly. In Britain, Channel 4 has joined Sky Sports, Scottish TV and eight Continental broadcasters who will show games. There will also be two live matches each weekend in the United States, on the fx cable channel.

When the World League was shown in the US in 1991 and 1992, it was a ratings disaster, American fans perceiving it to be a poor-quality imitation of the NFL. This year, however, the league features more than 60 players on loan from NFL teams.

"The level of play this year will be better than in the past," Luck said. "We had a number of NFL players trying out, and some were cut during training camp, which is an indication of the standard. I'm convinced that all six of our teams would beat Nebraska, the current college champions. This is the best football you'll find outside the NFL."

The signs are encouraging, but American football in this country continues its quest for credibility. It is still trying to recover from the excesses of 1991, when the Monarchs played to audiences of 40,000 at Wembley.

Such gates were never attainable over a sustained period, but the result is that an average of 10,000, which the Monarchs achieved in 1995, is viewed in some quarters as a failure. This seems harsh when placed in the context of attendances at Wimbledon, Charlton, Millwall, and the majority of the country's leading rugby union club sides.

Expectations now are lower, and while the league still has to prove itself, significant progress both on and off the field is within its grasp this year, and should lead to long-term stability.

n The London Monarchs' final game of the season, against the Rhein Fire on 16 June, has been switched from White Hart Lane to Chelsea's Stamford Bridge as Tottenham begin work on replacing their pitch.