Europe Takes to WLAF, but Will It Catch On Here?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A case can be made for any professional league where sportswriters earn more than the players and Donald Trump can't buy in, yet there are more questions than answers about the World League of American Football as it wraps up an inaugural season of buzzers, bells and Barcelona.

For starters, where is the WLAF headed, besides to all corners of the world? Does anyone care? Who is Stan Gelbaugh, the league's reigning superstar? Is the helmet-cam here to stay or just a clever way to sell Dramamine? Is the WLAF merely an organized taxi squad for the NFL, primed for future player raids?

First-year reviews are mixed and confusing. The good news is that the WLAF is no United States Football League. Then again, what on Earth was? If you want stars, though, you'd better stick to astronomy. The closest thing to a name player in the WLAF is Eric Hickerson, a safety for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

The WLAF's most impressive first-year statistic is a tossup between the complete and unexpected dominance of the European franchises over North American teams--on the field and in the stands--and the itinerary of the road-weary Sacramento Surge, which leads the league with 31,700 air miles of travel.

The WLAF is big on distant shores. The three European franchises--London, Frankfurt and Barcelona--have averaged 30,324 a game among them, compared to about 22,000 for the seven North American franchises--Montreal, Orlando (Fla.), New York-New Jersey, Birmingham (Ala.), Sacramento, San Antonio and Raleigh-Durham (N.C.).

The European teams are 11-0 at home against American teams, promoting several jet-lag theories.

The London Monarchs, coached by former Raider assistant Larry Kennan, are clearly the class of the WLAF at 9-0, led by former journeyman NFL quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, the WLAF's leading passer with a 64% completion average. Gelbaugh, 28, was ready to quit football last winter. Now, he's the Prince of Picadilly.

By contrast, America's own Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, coached by former Ram quarterback Roman Gabriel, are the worst the WLAF has to offer at 0-9, after a 20-14 loss to Orlando Monday night. The Skyhawks, beset by injuries, have been called the worst team assembled since Walter Matthau rounded up some Little Leaguers.

One more week of games remains in the WLAF regular season. The first World Bowl is scheduled for June 9 in London's Wembley Stadium.

WLAF President Mike Lynn, the former Minnesota Viking general manager, can't explain the positive reaction in Europe, beyond some high-powered marketing techniques.

"It's like the North American Soccer League coming to this country and averaging the same as NFL football," Lynn said of the WLAF's impact overseas. "It's an absolute phenomenon."

When the Barcelona Dragons returned home from a recent two-week tour of America, they were greeted at the hotel by 1,000 fans, a 90-piece marching band and a fireworks show.

In Frankfurt, the billboards read: "Come Watch 11 Men and Their Egg."

In London, Gelbaugh is King.

No surprise, the Monarchs lead the league in attendance, averaging 37,893 a game.

In the States, though, where television rules, the WLAF is being dragged down by its own weight. Before Monday night's game, the Skyhawks were last in league attendance, averaging 13,262. Television ratings are poor. ABC is averaging about a 2.1 share for its broadcasts. USA Network is pulling in an overall 1.2 for its Saturday/Monday showings.

"The ratings are, quite frankly, not as high as we would have liked," ABC spokesman Mark Mandell said. "But we knew going in it was going to have to build and grow. When we went in, there were no teams, stadiums, coaches. We knew it was a good concept. We still know it's a good concept."

A brief background: The WLAF was born at the request of television, convinced that any spring league would outdraw the spring alternatives: White Rapids Barefoot Canoeing, Pro Curling Tour, etc. ABC offered a two-year package worth $28 million, while the USA cable network joined in for $25 million over two years with a two-year option. The league commanded some credibility because it is subsidized, in part, by the parent company, the NFL. Twenty-six of the 28 NFL teams contributed $50,000 apiece for start-up money, in addition to setting up a line of credit.

The WLAF is made up of 10 teams spanning five countries and two continents. It cost each of the 10 WLAF owners $11 million to purchase a franchise.

To prevent the spending spiral that led to the USFL's demise, the WLAF office controls team payrolls, travel budgets--even paper-clip allotments. Base salaries are set at $15,000 for kickers and punters, $20,000 for position players and $25,000 for quarterbacks, with incentive clauses boosting the ante.

But why the disparity between the two shores?

The league's success in Europe may be explained in Pavlovian principles. The NFL has been force-feeding overseas customers top-grade football for years, first by providing taped replays of NFL games, then with football exhibitions called American Bowls, in London and Berlin.

So, when the NFL rang a bell called the WLAF, Europeans came in droves, waved flags, purchased truckloads of merchandise--$125,000 worth in one game at Barcelona--and made folk heroes of journeymen such as Gelbaugh and a Barcelona quarterback named Scott Erney.

Time should tell whether this is fad or frenzy in Europe.

To its credit, the NFL came up with an interesting concept. Rather than allow competitors to carve a way into their precious market, spring or fall, the league set up a corner market next to its own shopping mall. The NFL oversees the product and can send its own players to the WLAF, all while shutting competitors out.

Whether the WLAF is a developmental league for the NFL has spurred some debate. Interestingly, the league rule that prohibits a player who participates in a foreign league from competing in the NFL the same season does not apply to the WLAF.

Lynn, though, maintains that the WLAF will not allow wholesale raids. "When we start losing players (to the NFL), it has to be a two-way street," he said. "If we lose 15 of our players, we want to get players back of similar quality. It would be kind of a lend-lease type of situation."

The American customer, more sophisticated, hasn't been as eager to shell out hard-earned dollars for games featuring roster-cut leftovers. And the WLAF is noticeably sagging in the Bible Belt, suggesting a USFL backlash in Orlando, Birmingham, and San Antonio--all former USFL cities.

The last memories of spring football in San Antonio were of the team's general manager sneaking out the window of his office to avoid facing several players who came looking for back pay.

"It takes a while to forget that there have been spring leagues before," said Gabriel, who also coached in the USFL.

Some suggest that the WLAF purposely weighted the draft so that European teams would be stronger, figuring the game would be a tougher sell overseas.

That theory doesn't wash, though, because Raleigh-Durham had the best position in a complicated-matrix draft format and still ended up with the worst team.

The WLAF does know marketing. It poured millions into Europe and hyped some interesting matchups at home as well. To preview a game between Birmingham, Ala., and London, a horseback rider was hired to race through the streets of Birmingham, yelling, "The British Are Coming!"

The league lures fans with slick Madison Avenue marketing and enough publicity stunts and innovations to garner headlines.

There's the helmet-cam, a USA network brainstorm that allows the fan to view the game through the player's eyes.

"People love it," USA network spokeswoman Leslie Anne Wade said. "Everyone in the world has written about it."

There are crazy game uniforms, so glow-in-the-dark green in the case of Orlando, you suspect they were made near a nuclear landfill.

The WLAF has even concocted live-wire TV hookups between coach and quarterback.

Notice that the WLAF hasn't mentioned the words Los Angeles, which took it in the seats when the USFL's Express evaporated in 1985, leaving an unpaid debt of more than $1 million.

The WLAF needs to expand to major markets to negotiate better TV deals and, at last check, Los Angeles was still a major market.

The league has already announced plans to add at least two teams next season. Lynn said, ideally, the league will someday deploy 30 teams around the world.

A WLAF trip is not unlike running away to join the circus.

The Monarchs recently concluded an 18-day jaunt covering 14,237 miles. The Monarchs won all three games on the trip, suggesting it is easier to travel from Europe to America than vice versa. Others argue that the Monarchs are superior in all time zones.

London's Kennan believes that the European teams are more closely knit because the players spend so much time with each other in a foreign setting.

"It's a fun league," Kennan said. "It's a good living, the salaries aren't huge, but it's a fun league to coach. We don't have anybody holding out. That eliminates some of the problems. There are (fewer) prima donnas."

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