Newer leagues gird for grid action

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The National Football League has had such unparalleled success that you can't blame others for wanting to launch a few gridiron leagues of their own.

But the question is whether there's enough of an appetite for pigskin among fans, TV outlets and sponsors to make a go of alternative nationwide leagues consisting of women, amateurs or kids. The new league organizers think so.

While the NFL merely offers 18 weeks of play each year, various alternative leagues in rapid expansion mode have developed a great deal of new football action, and TV coverage is guaranteed by the arrival this year of two all-football cable networks (see story below).

Research shows Americans have an almost insatiable appetite for football. Pro football is tops in popularity in a Harris Poll of 1,011 adults conducted last August-more than twice as many adults who follow a sport called pro football their favorite (29%) as named baseball (13%), the second most-popular sport in the survey.

Remember the XFL

But success for alternative leagues isn't assured.The spectacular failure in 2001 of the Xtreme Football League, conceived by professional wrestling's Vince McMahon and backed by General Electric Co.'s NBC, proved that, lasting only one season and losing an estimated $70 million. And fans barely remember the long-defunct USFL and WFL.

Still, any opportunity to tap into fans' grid-lust at a fraction of the multimillion-dollar price of NFL sponsorships is worth exploring, say ad agency executives.

The Arena Football League is scoring success after years of carefully cultivated grassroots growth. Nine NFL team owners now also operate AFL teams, and several NFL players have crossed over to arena ball, lending it more credibility.

The indoor league enters its 18th season in February with 19 teams, three more than last year; a second year of network coverage on NBC; and attendance at games up 15% in 2003.

National sponsors include the U.S. Army, Nike and ADT Security Services, with several more deals pending, say AFL executives. Unlike the NFL, AFL sponsorship includes wide access to teams and players, who are required by a "Fans' Bill of Rights" to sign autographs after all games.

"We found a great tie-in with the AFL because it's about teamwork, flexibility and speed, which is what the Army wants in its members," says Derek Jernstedt, an account director at Relay Sports & Event Marketing, a Chicago-based division of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group.

The Army provides interactive games and uniformed recruiters at every AFL game as part of a deal inked in 2001. Through Relay, the Army is also a sponsor of the third annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl game, slated for Jan. 3 in San Antonio, in which 78 of the nation's best high school players will face off. It will also be broadcast on NBC for the first time.

Gaining speed, but lacking sponsors, is the U.S. Flag & Touch Football League, which claims more than 350,000 players nationwide and a season that goes nearly year-round. This league for amateurs signed a cable TV coverage deal starting this year with TFN, The Football Network, which debuted last month. As a result, the league hopes to name its first national sponsors soon, says Michael Cihon, executive director.

A TV deal is the Holy Grail for these alternative leagues when it comes to attracting sponsor interest.

Competitive football is by no means just for testosterone-fueled bruisers anymore. At least two pro leagues consist of female teams.

has TFN deal

The National Women's Football Association has seen major growth since launching in 2000 with one team. The organization now has 37 teams in cities across the U.S. and one sponsor, DC Brands' Dickens Energy Cider, says Catherine Masters, CEO and founder of the Nashville-based league.

Its season runs from April through June, and the NWFA also has a cable deal with TFN that ought to significantly enhance its sponsorship prospects in the next year, says Ms. Masters.

Also, the NWFA is being promoted in brief sports entertainment vignettes on cable's guy-targeted Spike TV. TFN produced the segments.

The Houston-based Women's Professional Football League, in existence since 1999, has no sponsors or TV deal, and may have difficulty continuing without them. "You need TV coverage in order to get sponsorship, and we need sponsors in order to keep going," says Robin Howington, WPFL director.

It's unlikely any other league will ever catch up to the NFL's success, because it stays one step ahead of all other sports leagues with uniquely coordinated, far-thinking marketing strategies, says Nick Paul, VP-management director of 361 Sports & Event Marketing, Chicago, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide.

In 2002, the NFL claimed a record 90% sellout of games by its 32 teams, and this year inked a deal with Reebok International to develop women's fan apparel for the first time, since 40% of its audience is female.

To keep a lock on the loyalty of upcoming generations, the NFL has played a key role in helping market top-selling NFL-theme football videogames for EA Sports, and this year featured youth-oriented musicians Good Charlotte and Britney Spears in its season kickoff in Washington.

"We really see ourselves competing with all of entertainment, not [just] with sports," says John Collins, the NFL's senior VP-marketing and sales.

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