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The biggest reason that American football, or gridiron as we also call it, has succeeded in Europe is that the World League is fun. The cheerleaders, the cartoon characters going around to see the kids in the stands, the tailgating—all that razzmatazz—are new to us. The spectacle is a piece of America transported to Europe.
American football also is safe for the fans. Soccer matches in England and Germany have been rife with hooliganism, but families can attend World League games confident that the only violence they'll encounter will be on the field. Generally speaking, the spectators are of the MTV generation, and they're searching for a new outlet; though they may feel obliged to indulge in excesses at soccer games, they're only too happy to go along with the clean image and family atmosphere in the stands while they enjoy the controlled aggression on the field.
Because American football is new to Europe, it is unburdened by tradition there. In England, for instance, soccer tends to be the sport of the working class, and cricket and rugby attract more of a middle-class audience. American football spans all classes and ages. In addition, the European audience, which has not been constantly exposed to the finely honed skills seen in the NFL, has been more willing than U.S. fans to accept the level of play in the World League.
London Monarch fans are enthusiastic and fairly knowledgeable. Some in the crowd of 46,952 at the opener in March made their indignation known when the Wembley Stadium announcer said he would explain the rules during the game. No rules, please, we're British. Barcelonans and Frankfurters have had more difficulty with the rules and subtleties of the sport. Translating "the quarterback faked a handoff and dropped deep to avoid the blitz before throwing a bomb to his receiver" into German or Spanish does not come easily.
If 10 penalties are called during the course of a game, London fans will know why five or six of the flags are thrown. In Barcelona, the fans will understand why three or four of the penalties are called. Fans of all three European teams, however, know when to cheer. On a punt return for a touchdown, they might not appreciate the seven good blocks along the way, but they'll recognize the magnificent run.
Obviously, the success of the European franchises on the field has attracted fans as well. Who could have predicted that the Monarchs (9-1 in the regular season, with an average home crowd of 40,481), the Dragons (8-2; 29,002) and the Frankfurt Galaxy (7-3; 29,856) would be the winningest and among the best-supported franchises in the league?
The affinity between the players and the crowd has been a positive feature of the World League in Europe. As a gesture of camaraderie, Monarch players have thrown the ball into the Wembley stands after scoring a touchdown, even though they are charged $100 for each of the balls. And the players have been excellent ambassadors for the U.S., with a welcome absence of FOOTBALLERS SMASH UP BAR headlines.
The players, many of whom had never before traveled outside North America, haven't had it easy. Those in Barcelona have felt especially isolated, because far fewer people in Spain speak English than in Germany. Accommodations and training facilities in all three cities have not been up to the standard U.S. players have come to expect. In this regard, Europe isn't geared for American football, but the players have accepted these shortcomings with no more than a customary moan.
We know the World League isn't the NFL, but that has a plus side. The losing quarterback in the World Bowl won't be subjected to the sort of treatment John Elway received after three unsuccessful Super Bowl efforts. The prize for winning may not be as great, but the cost of failure is not as severe.
The fans who follow the Monarchs have long wanted an American football team. They have watched NFL games on TV and gone to NFL preseason games in Europe. They have cheered the Bears, the Raiders and the 49ers, but those teams were still someone else's. The Monarchs are "us." The royal we, you might say.