New World League uniforms are modeled by former NFL star Joey Browner. WORLD LEAGUE SUITS UP FOR REPLAY IN EUROPE

By Published on .

LONDON-After a three-year hiatus, the NFL is bringing the World League of American Football back to Europe next spring with a new-and-improved game plan.

Burned by earlier fumbles ending in the league's being benched in 1992 after only two seasons, the NFL has a go-slow strategy. This time the league will be limited to European teams, and rely more on sponsorship revenue than TV rights.

Lack of interest was never a problem in Europe, where average per-game attendance in 1992 was a respectable 21,000. The failure was due to the collective yawns from across the Atlantic, where an anticipated U.S. TV audience failed to materialize.

So the NFL folks got to thinking it should forget about the U.S. and let the World League hold its own in Europe against soccer, motorsports, bicycling and snooker.

"We will take every step possible to make football more palatable to the European public," said Marc Lory, the newly named chief executive. Mr. Lory was formerly president-CEO of Orlux Distribution, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based distributor of Vuarnet sunglasses in the U.S. and Mexico.

For starters, the new World League consists of six teams: The Amsterdam Admirals, the Barcelona Dragons, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the London Monarchs, the Duesseldorf Rhein Fire and the Scottish Claymores in Edinburgh, Scotland. The previous league had six U.S., one Canadian and three European teams.

World League matches will be aimed directly at the MTV generation.

"The target age group is between 17 and 27-about 10 years younger than the NFL," Mr. Lory said. "They are not only interested in American football. They are interested in American culture. They want to be part of an event."

To hold the attention of the twentysomethings, the games may be shortened by cutting each quarter to 12 minutes, and some will include live U.S. rock at halftime.

"Football to us represents entertainment, and we are going to deliver entertainment to European crowds," Mr. Lory said.

The league is no longer relying on TV revenues to sustain it, and is prepared not to make money for three years.

Losses are possible, Mr. Lory said, because this time around, the NFL has a minority partner in Fox Inc. Together, the two companies are committing $40 million to get the league up and running.

The first games telecast in Europe will probably be shown only in local markets, but later games may get broader coverage. No decisions have been made on what media outlets will be used, including whether Sky Sports will be involved. Sky Sports and Fox are both units of News Corp.

Fox executives said the NFL will have some say in that decision and noted that the NFL has long-standing relationships with ABC and its ESPN unit, as well as NBC. ESPN is a major distributor of NFL coverage worldwide and ABC owns a stake in Europe's Eurosport satellite service. Likewise, NBC now owns the most pervasive pan-European service, NBC SuperChannel.

In the U.S., Fox Sports executives have indicated that at least some of the games would likely air on Fox's fledgling fX cable channel in the first year. But they won't run on Fox Sports' broadcast network schedule, where NFL games now air.

Officially the NFL hadn't planned on any U.S. TV coverage of the World League, in part because of embarrassingly low TV ratings for ABC's two-year stint broadcasting the sport.

But Fox probably will convince the NFL otherwise, using its minority equity position in the league as leverage.

One key factor is that the days and times the games will be played is still undetermined. Awareness of U.S. football in Europe is low. In a random study of 2,900 males ages 16 to 34 in seven major European cities, 30% of respondents said they have never watched an American-rules football game on TV, and 86% have never attended a game. The telephone survey was conducted in January for the World League by R.S.L. Research Services.

"American football has no roots in Europe," said Eric Drossart, international group VP of sports marketing group, International Management Group.

"The only way you can impose a sport in an area where it has no roots is to inject a lot of money and make a huge marketing push," Mr. Drossart said. "Instead of spending $40 million, you might have to spend $150 million to make the splash that you want."

Mr. Lory is planning a print and TV campaign this winter aimed at increasing awareness, but hasn't yet chosen an agency nor set a budget. His first priority is to hire a marketing VP and public relations director.

The biggest source of revenues for the World League after ticket sales is expected to be money from large "primary" sponsors although the league isn't prepared to disclose any revenue goals.

Reebok International has already signed up, and deals with McDonald's Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. are in the works, Mr. Lory said. Neither the league nor sponsors will elaborate.

The World League is also looking for about four local sponsors in each team's home town. The fees will get sponsors some as yet unspecified promotional benefit.

Reebok is planning to introduce a line of World League/Reebok logo sportswear next spring.

The deal is "important for the overall position of Reebok in the European market," said Bruce Nevins, Reebok VP Europe, Uxbridge, England.

Licensed products are a huge source of NFL revenues. World League licensed products are expected to be the fourth-largest source of revenues, after ticket sales, primary sponsors and local sponsor contributions.

This year, NFL licensed products will bring in $3.3 billion in revenue in the U.S. Another $375 million comes from sales outside the U.S., with $250 million of that in Europe, said Nick Price, director of NFL Properties/Europe.

The NFL has 30 licensees across Europe churning out sweatpants, jackets, T-shirts, coffee mugs, computer games software, plush toys, watches, pennants and other items.

Expectations are that the World League alone could be responsible for $30 million in additional merchandise sales next year.

"With six teams in Europe, we are very excited," Mr. Price said. "There are tremendous business opportunities."

Joe Mandese in New York contributed to this story.

In this article:
Most Popular