American Football Abroad

As the Super Bowl looms, the giant spectacle of the gridiron seems to be catching on worldwide; for many, though, the game is still a puzzle

AFTER much head-scratching, Sandra Parsons finally decided that the only way a young Englishwoman could unlock the mysteries of American football was to don the gear, go out on the field, and rub shoulder-pads with players in a practice session. An hour later, thanks to expert coaching by Jim Dombrowski of the New Orleans Saints - at 6 ft., 5 in. and 295 lbs. nearly three times her size - Ms. Parsons returned a better-briefed (if out of breath) London journalist and a gridiron enthusiast.

She is one of a growing body of British fans who, thanks to satellite links with America, now follow the American pro game regularly on television, and will soon have a team of their own to cheer in an international league linking Europe with North America.

``At the beginning, I knew as much about American football as I still do about nuclear physics,'' Parsons says. ``But I have discovered that the object isn't necessarily to kill each other, as I first thought, but to win territory, bit by bit.

``I can see why some people compare it with chess ... ; I know a bit about the intricacies of defending, and I've also come to appreciate the balletic grace of those enormous musclemen as they float across the pitch [field]. Count me as a true believer,'' she says.

Parson's initiation came last August when the Saints and the Los Angeles Raiders clashed at Crystal Palace stadium near London in a preseason exhibition game before a crowd of 30,000.

The National Football League, promoters of the exhibition contest, have been holding such games here since 1986, hoping to capture the attention of British sports fans long happy to follow soccer or rugby - the ``football'' games that have hogged the country's TV screens until now.

But the NFL also wants to fill the ``football gap'' on US screens that occurs every season once the Super Bowl is over. The answer: Give viewers a follow-up series of games in the spring.

The NFL was encouraged by American TV networks frustrated by CBS's virtual monopoly of baseball coverage in the United States. ABC and NBC both asked the NFL to form a spring football league. The NFL, emboldened by the popularity of its preseason American Bowl games in Britain, decided in the spring of 1989 to form the World League of American Football (WLAF).

On March 24 the WLAF is scheduled to launch its own season in Barcelona, Spain, as the hometown Dragons battle the New York-New Jersey Knights. Great Britain (the London Monarchs) and Germany (the Frankfurt Galaxy) will also compete in the league, alongside the Montreal Machine, the Orlando, Fla., Thunder, the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Skyhawks, the Sacramento, Calif., Surge, the San Antonio Riders, and the Birmingham, Ala., Fire. The series will culminate in a World Bowl in June.

President of the London Monarchs is Bob Payton, a New York-born pizza restaurateur who has lived in England for 17 years. and is confident the WLAF enterprise will succeed.

``I am sure the game is going to really take off here,'' Mr. Payton says. Player selections take place next month in Orlando, Fla. Of 700 football players invited to the tryouts, six are British. ``The Monarchs will be a world-class team. We have several British players in training, and [player] selections will be made in February at Orlando [Fla.]. Public interest is building fast.'' (Of 700 football players invited to the Florida tryouts, six are British.)

The Monarchs' opening game will be against the New York-New Jersey Knights on March 31. Payton expects a crowd of 60,000 to watch the game in London's Wembley Stadium.

A special British flavor is being injected into the Monarchs, which faces its first test March 31 against the Knights in Wembley Stadium here. Lord Litchfield, who has taken many portraits of Britain's royal family, is the team's photographer. London's Ritz Hotel is the team's official supplier of afternoon tea.

At the same time, the Americanism of the gridiron is given due weight: Auditions for cheerleaders will be in February. Payton is still trying to find somebody in England who can make hot dogs that taste like hot dogs. ``It's a real battle,'' he admits.

One of the sponsors for the opening game will be Boston Man Cologne, a new product being launched in the US. The opening game will be televised in the US by ABC Sports and USA Network cable TV, which are paying the WLAF a reported $48 million in a two-year deal.

Payton says there is a growing market in Europe for US football goods: ``British fans last year spent 25 million pounds [$49 million] on NFL-logo shirts and hats. By wearing the gear, the fans are buying into the American culture.''

There is a rising level of sophistication among British fans. David Tossell, a sportswriter on the Today newspaper here, says that in 1982, when television coverage of American football first began, it was possible to write about the game without discussing its finer points.

``Things are different now,'' Mr. Tossell says. ``People still like the spectacle and the razzmatazz, but there is a hard core of followers who know the tactics. Others want to unwrap a riddle that has always baffled most Brits.

``Nowadays if I cover a game, I can't get away with writing about how pretty the cheerleaders look. Fans want all the details of play,'' he concludes.

Other measures of public interest: 1.6 million viewers (a third of them women) watched last year's Super Bowl telecast nationwide on Channel Four; over a million watch a regular-season Sunday night replay of NFL games beamed from the US; and most major British newspapers are sending correspondents to cover this weekend's Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., barring any postponement of the game on account of war in the Mideast.

Backers of the WLAF are putting their faith in satellite technology to turn an all-American game into an international attraction. Billy Hicks, the Monarchs' general manager, says: ``What we are talking about is the globalizing of gridiron.''

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