Spring pro football, last seen in 1985, returns to the airwaves Saturday when the Birmingham Fire play host to the Montreal Machine beginning at 5 p.m. on cable's USA Network.

Who? What? Why?

The Fire and Machine are two of 10 teams in the NFL-backed World League of American Football. The new league includes three teams in Europe, as the NFL hopes to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of the sport abroad. The other U.S. teams are the New York-New Jersey Knights, Orlando Thunder, Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, Sacramento Surge and San Antonio Riders.

"The whole skew on the league is that it's fast and fun," said Rob Correa, USA Network's director of sports programming. "It's got to be fun. It's new and there's never been a game played. The NFL is very established. They can be conservative in nature because they have an incredibly successful project. This league has to open."

The World League's rules will generally be similar to the NFL's, but there will be some differences:

There will be less time to snap the ball once it is marked ready to play, encouraging no-huddle offenses.

There will be no instant replay reviews of officials' calls and no "in-the-grasp" rule. Instead of sudden-death overtime, the World League's one 15-minute extra period will be concluded when a team scores six points. Coaches will have the option of going for a two-point conversion after touchdowns. Non-flagrant pass interference penalties will be 15 yards, instead of the spot of the foul.

There also will be differences in the telecasts.

"It's going to have a fun presentation to it, with stuff no one sees in an NFL game," said Correa, whose network will broadcast 24 regular season games on Saturdays and Mondays and a playoff game June 1. "They're going to have radio communications between the coach and quarterback, and we're going to try to tap into that. We can attempt to get into the locker rooms at halftime, but that will depend on the coaches. We're looking at miking players and putting cameras in helmets."

When the first telecast begins, the most well-known name at Legion Field will be rock 'n' roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, who will sing "The Star Spangled Banner" before the game and "Great Balls of Fire" at halftime. There will be a drop-off when it comes to players who could be considered household names outside their own households.

With the first pick in last month's quarterback draft, Birmingham selected Brent Pease, who quarterbacked the Houston Oilers during the 1987 NFL Players Assn. strike and remained for the rest of that season and 1988 as a backup to Warren Moon.

Montreal's draft picks included two quarterbacks who have laid claim to being college football's passing yardage record holder: Todd Santos, who holds the record from his years at San Diego State, and Kevin Sweeney from Fresno State, whose record Santos broke.

World League franchises opened their training camps Feb. 25, giving coaches less than a month to mold their teams. Other start-up football leagues have seen defenses dominate and offenses struggle in the first few weeks.

"That will vary with the teams, based on the skill of the coaches and the talent strengths," said Dick Vermeil, the former UCLA and Philadelphia Eagles coach who will serve as an analyst on ABC's World League telecasts. "If one team comes up with a quarterback that can get it done a little bit sooner, than offensively they'll be further ahead than someone else."

Vermeil said he believes the games will be entertaining.

"These players were all fine college football players, so chances are that by mid-season you'll see football equivalent to major college football and maybe just a step beyond with the exception that you're not going to see the No.-1 draft-choice type guy," Vermeil said.

"There are a lot of fine football players that aren't quite big enough to play in the National Football League who could have played 10 years ago, but the NFL has gone from the 250-260 pound linemen to 275-300 pounds. The same is equivalent in receivers and other positions. It doesn't mean they're not good football players. It just means they can't quite play in the National Football League, but still have fine athletic skills."

Although ratings were down for both college and NFL games this fall, Brent Musburger believes the World League will find an audience.

"I'm very optimistic," said Musburger, who will call games on ABC beginning March 24 when the New York-New Jersey Knights visit the Barcelona Dragons. "Nothing in the history of televised sports has succeeded quite like football. I think it has great potential."

ABC will air a World League game each Sunday through May 19. On May 26, when ABC telecasts the Indianapolis 500, a game will be shown Saturday, May 25. ABC also will broadcast a playoff game June 2 and the World Bowl June 9.

The World League is the second attempt at spring professional football, following the United States Football League, which played from 1983 to 1985. The World League has instituted various safeguards against a repeat of the overspending that wrecked the USFL. All players are signed to a standard league contract, with a base pay of $20,000 for most players ($15,000 for punters and kickers, $25,000 for quarterbacks), plus performance bonuses.

The World League of American Football begins when the Montreal Machine visits the Birmingham Fire, airing Saturday at 5 p.m. on USA. ABC's fir s t World League game, New York-New Jersey Knights at Barcelona Dragons, airs March 24 at 10 a.m.

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