World League set fair for future

Nick Halling reports from Barcelona on promising signs for American football's international venture

The World League season may have come to an end on Sunday night with the Barcelona Dragons beating the Rhein Fire 38-24 in a thriller, but in a sense the most significant action is only just beginning.

Since its relaunch in 1995 following two ill-conceived campaigns in 1991 and 1992, Europe's professional American football league has shown a durability which has surprised its critics, many of whom expected the American-backed operation to fold again at the first sign of trouble.

Instead, after a slow start it appears to be set for a lengthy stay, buoyed by steadily increasing attendances and dramatic improvements in the overall standard of play.

Last season more than a 100 players with World League experience saw action in the National Football League, a figure that should be swelled by a promising group from the current crop. This is a significant factor supporting the League's long-term aspirations.

The World League is a joint venture between the NFL and the Fox Television network: if NFL owners see a return on their investment in terms of useful improvements in players, they are likely to continue to give the international advertisement for the game their essential support.

Off the field, attendance figures achieved a modest rise of five per cent over last season. On average, World League games attracted 18,000 fans, with the Frankfurt Galaxy leading the way with passionate throngs of 35,000. Significant increases were achieved in Dusseldorf and Amsterdam, although the picture was clouded by disappointing dips in London and Barcelona. The league can probably allow for one of its six franchises to struggle, but is unlikely to tolerate two. Over the last three seasons, the Monarchs have attracted crowds of around 10,000, which is not a disastrous figure but that is disappointing when set against the impressive gates 40,000 gates of six years ago.

The Dragons have been in freefall since the League's return and the 31,000 at Sunday's finale notwithstanding, the Spanish operation looks to be in trouble, its viability certain to be high on the agenda at League meetings this week.

Given the importance of Britain in the League's overall marketing scheme, the London Monarchs' future looks assured, although changes are likely. Concern over apathy in the capital has resulted in the formulation of a plan to take the Monarchs on the road next year, with cities such as Bristol and Birmingham possibly staging games.

"There are obviously concerns over London and Barcelona, but overall the signs are encouraging," said Oliver Luck, the League's president. "The Scottish Claymores are the third-best supported team in Scotland behind Rangers and Celtic, the Amsterdam Admirals are second only to Ajax, while in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt we're the biggest show in town."

All seems satisfactory on the television front. "It has been another season of progress," was the encouraging verdict of Krieger, the executive vice-president of Fox Sports. "In addition to more live telecasts in Europe than in previous years we have added important terrestrial exposure in Holland and Spain, while total viewership in the US is also up."

Perhaps the most telling moves occurred in the last two weeks. Ernie Stautner, the veteran coach who had led the Galaxy to the title in 1995, found that his contract had not been renewed. Then Mike Keller, the general manager of the Claymores, was dismissed following differences of opinion with head office.

"This kind of turbulence shows how serious we are," Luck said. "Both Ernie and Mike had done good jobs, but there were things we did not see eye to eye on. We need to have the best people we can in key positions."

With two seasons remaining on the current five-year deal, there is little talk of time running out. Quite the opposite, in fact: Luck looks to a future which features two new expansion teams, an extended regular season, and average crowds of 25,000. Bold plans perhaps, but the World League is nothing if not ambitious.

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