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Europeans Brace For an Invasion Of American Football

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 1995



ATLANTA

SCOTT COUPER is someone the National Football League would like to clone. The Scotsman plays for the Edinburgh-based Scottish Claymores, one of six European teams in the restarted World League of American Football, and aspires to coach his new sport to players at home.

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''There's a big market for American football in Europe,'' Couper said after a March 25 scrimmage in Atlanta, where all six teams have been practicing for a month. But ''we need to get a feeder system going'' to promote the game and create interest.

As the WL gets ready to kick off April 8, co-sponsor NFL harbors high hopes that this marks the beginning of a major expansion of the sport in Europe.

''We want to expand the horizons of US football,'' says Gene Washington, director of football development for the NFL. ''If football catches on [around the world] as it has in the US, we could have a world championship. That's an exciting prospect.''

If the WL feels like deja vu, that's because it is. The league started in 1991 but folded after the 1992 season because of Europe's recession, poor attendance at games played in America, and costs that irked NFL owners and networks footing the bill.

The first league had 10 teams, seven in North America and three in Europe. Now there are six teams, all in Europe. To the three original European teams (London Monarchs, Barcelona Dragons of Spain, and Frankfurt Galaxy of Germany) have been added the Scottish Claymores, Amsterdam Admirals, and the Rhein Fire of Dusseldorf, Germany. Each team has a roster of 33 Americans and seven local players. Each team will play 10 games before the regular season ends June 11.

Backers say this time the league will succeed. Here's why:

First, the new league is a joint venture between the NFL and Fox Inc./News Corp. Before, the NFL supported the league but only ''at an arm's length,'' says Pete Abitante, director of international public relations for the NFL. ''Fox is an aggressive promoter and partner who can help spread the sport throughout Europe.'' Together the NFL and Fox are spending between $40 million and $50 million for the four-year commitment.

Second, the marketing approach this time around is also different, Mr. Abitante says. Three years ago, the league relied primarily on television revenues, which generated little money because there were few TV contracts in Europe where most media outlets were government-owned. Although the TV landscape has changed since then -- more countries are privatizing their media -- ticket sales are the main revenue source this time.

But the biggest reason supporters are optimistic is that all six teams are in Europe, which drew the biggest audiences in the '91-'92 seasons. ''The strength of the league was the three European teams,'' each of which averaged 30,000 spectators per game, Abitante says. ''The US teams here were not supported well.''

Throughout Europe, the response to American football ''has been outstanding,'' says Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Germany alone has more than 220 amateur American football leagues.

Couper, the Scotsman on the Claymores, became involved in the sport about 10 years ago, around the time a number of amateur teams sprang up in Europe. He believes he was chosen because he's good at catching a football. But playing with Americans has been a bit of an adjustment. ''It's frightening. I've never seen anything like it back home,'' he says with a laugh. ''These are thoroughbred athletes; they move so fast.''

Couper, a 165-lb. six-footer, jokes good-naturedly about his lean physique compared with some of the bulky hulks from the US. ''I believe I'm the smallest and lightest on the team, and it's just a case of survival, of using my wits.''