The Super Bowl, by comparison, seems tasteful and understated. Player introductions at the World League of American Football game between the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Barcelona Dragons on May 6 were accompanied and interrupted by prancing cheerleaders, exploding Roman candles, bongo drummers and a troupe of stilt walkers. Frankfurt won 24-20 on a terrific touchdown pass in the game's penultimate minute, but who wanted to talk about football with the circus in town?
Please join us in extending a warm Willkommen back to the NFL's World League, up and running this spring after a two-year hiatus. Gone are the helmet-cam and the seven apathy-inspiring, unprofitable North American franchises. New to the league—which now has six teams, all based in Europe—are franchises in Amsterdam, Düsseldorf and Edinburgh. New also is a raft of rules. Say hello, for example, to the four-point field goal, designed to inflate scores and capture the interest of Europeans.
In its reincarnation the league is emphasizing frugality—players earn, on average, $15,000 for the 10-week season—and entertainment. Three hours before kickoffs at Frankfurt's 54,000-seat Waldstadion, the Galaxy kicks off its Power Party, a kind of open-air rock concert crossed with a Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Ride the mechanical bull. Join the dancing in front of toolshed-sized speakers to the tunes of ZZ Top, George Thorogood and Joan Jett. Or wander over to that cordoned-off area and try the World League Experience.
The Experience comprises games designed to give Europeans an appreciation of football skills. In the Quarterback Challenge they get points for hitting a cardboard receiver in the hands. The most popular game is Extra Point, a breeze for soccer players who don't fare so well at catching passes at the Down and Out booth.
There are other aspects of the World League experience that would baffle most Europeans and a lot of Americans, too. How to figure players who sit in hotels in some of the world's most glamorous, cosmopolitan cities and complain about how tough they have it? But whine they do. A sampling of beefs collected on a recent tour of the league: London women are plain; the Germans don't say excuse me when they bump into you; the bratwursts are entirely too long for the rolls in which they're served; and Amsterdam's street musicians are bad yet expect to be paid.
In addition, some players feel unappreciated. Media coverage has been sparse, and attendance through the first six weeks of the season has been disappointing—the London Monarchs, Amsterdam Admirals and Scottish Claymores are each averaging fewer than 10,000 fans a game. "These are some of the best players not in the NFL," says former Florida State quarterback Brad Johnson. "We deserve more coverage. But we know that the people who really matter"—NFL general managers, coaches and scouts—"are seeing film of our games."
Also displeased is Geoff Torretta, one of three older brothers of Düsseldorf Rhein Fire quarterback Gino. Geoff runs the family's restaurant and sports bar in Pinole, Calif., and the only World League action he can pull down on the bar's satellite dish is a weekly half-hour highlight show. "He says they don't show the turnovers," reports Gino, "but they do show all the extra points."
Then there are those puzzling new rules. The much-ballyhooed four-point field goal, for kicks attempted from more than 50 yards, has been a bust so far: Only two have been attempted; only one has been successful. In hopes of pleasing fans accustomed to the more continuous action of soccer, the league uses a 35-second clock. To promote scoring and preserve the health of quarterbacks, defenses have been shackled. Bump-and-run pass coverage, two-deep zones, outside blitzes and defensive-line stunts are all forbidden. "Next week," says Monarch strong safety Kevin Porter, "they'll outlaw tackling."
If your team is off to a slow start, it's no problem. World League II features a split season, the better to sustain fan interest. The World Bowl championship game in mid-June will pit the champion of the first half of the season against the champion of the second half. Amsterdam is in already by virtue of its 5-0 start. "We're over here in the middle of nowhere," says Amsterdam quarterback Jamie Martin. "We might as well win some games."
The Dutch might argue that Martin's alma mater, Weber State in Ogden, Utah, is closer to the middle of nowhere than this 700-year-old city of 700,000 that has given the world Heineken and Rembrandt. They would have a point.