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Mention Paris in NFL circles and you are likely talking about Bubba, not France. In those few colonies abroad where the league has established fans, its game is still known as "American football," and its current champion as "America's Team." Super Bowl winners may call themselves world champions, but in fact the NFL is no more global than the International House of Pancakes.
Or is it? The Super Bowl-bobo Buffalo Bills drew 67,132 spectators to an exhibition game last Saturday night in Berlin, where the Bills are, of course, very famous. "Frank Reich," intoned a German television reporter beginning an interview with Buffalo's backup quarterback after the Bills' 20-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, "you are very famous in Germany for your come-from-behind playoff win against New Orleans, and...."
"I think you mean Houston," Reich offered.
"Houston?" said the journalist, cocking a skeptical eyebrow at Reich before reluctantly conceding on camera: "Yes... I think you are right."
One night later in London the world champion Dallas Cowboys appeared very much Great Britain's Team in their 13-13 tie with the Detroit Lions, even though Detroit was the team with linebacker Antonio London and Etonian-sounding running back Shaumbe Wright-Fair. It didn't seem to bother fans that the only stars the Cowboys fielded at Wembley Stadium were on their helmets. Six weeks ago quarterback Troy Aikman underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back and is not expected to return until Dallas's final preseason game, in Chicago. Running back Emmitt Smith, whose recently premiered Reebok commercial features the tagline "All men are created equal—some just work harder in the preseason," is a preseason holdout.
And still a crowd of 43,522 came to Wembley, which means that in eight days during this preseason the NFL drew 205,377 fans to American football games in four foreign outposts: Barcelona, Tokyo, Berlin and London. Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate, once a backdrop for Hitler's birthday rallies and later left sandwiched in the dead man's land between East and West Berlin, last week finally said hel-lo to the lovely and talented...Buffalo Jills.
All of which raises the question: For the love of God, why?
Why has the league played 20 exhibition games overseas since 1983? Why has the NFL played preseason football in Berlin every summer for the last four years? In Tokyo for the last five? In London for the last eight? And why has the league become so intent on putting a helmet on every Helmut? Last spring 10,000 players and 1,000 coaches attended NFL clinics, mostly in Germany. More than 200 amateur teams now play American football there. For the first time a European who is not a kicker is in an NFL training camp: Olaf Hampel of Germany might actually make the Denver Broncos as an offensive tackle. German figure skater Katarina Witt is believed to have attended every American Bowl game in Berlin. Germans, clearly, have picked up the pigskin habit, which is a little frightening, given the amount of pork already in that nation's diet.
Why, indeed, are NFL teams willing to cart the more than 200 members of their traveling parties around the world simply to play preseason football? Even if that figure, in the case of the Cowboys, did include all 32 members of "The Often-Imitated, Never-Equaled, Internationally Famed Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders," as this double-jointed dance line was called when introduced to a breathless crowd on Sunday evening?
Why? For starters, there is the World League. The NFL expects to decide by mid-September whether or not to resuscitate this outfit that you may not have realized was dormant. Officially suspended last year after two seasons that resulted in losses of $20 million, the original World League comprised seven anonymous teams in North America, plus three very popular ones in Europe. At its demise 32 World League alumni had graduated to NFL active rosters. Should it return in the spring of '94—and NFL officials are optimistic that it will, provided they can sign the joint-venture agreement being discussed with two international media companies—the brave new World will be an all-European league of six teams: holdovers London, Barcelona and Frankfurt, plus new teams in Germany and the United Kingdom. Other bureaus under consideration are Madrid, Amsterdam...and Paris. April in Paris? Now we're talking football.