Is The World League A `Hail Mary' Play?

It's noisy here in training camp. But what do you expect from a team called the Orlando Thunder? Taking a break from the shouting and grunting, Mike Withycombe lumbers over to the sidelines. Released last summer by the New York Jets, the 6-foot 5-inch, 294-pound defensive tackle thought his pro football career was over at age 26. But drafted by the Thunder, one of 10 teams in the new World League of American Football, Withycombe has his second wind. So what if it isn't the National Football League? "I'd rather be doing this than flipping burgers or sitting behind a desk somewhere," he says.

On Mar. 23, Withycombe and a host of fellow NFL has-beens will start battering each other for real as the World League commences its inaugural season. Will anybody watch an imitation NFL? This is the third new league since the mid-1970s that has attempted to snag football fans. The last two crashed and burned. The U. S. Football League, the most recent flopperoo, played spring seasons from 1983 through 1985.

The lessons learned in the USFL debacle may well give the World League a better chance of success. First, the USFL wasn't a complete washout. Ratings for its games gave pro and college basketball and Major League Baseball a run for their money. Both TV and NFL executives took notice.

For years, the NFL had been toying with the idea of expanding overseas. Annual NFL exhibition games in Britain, Germany, and Japan have drawn huge crowds, and including some overseas teams in a new spring league could be a low-risk way to spread the gospel of American football. Hence the international flavor of the World League, which is owned by 26 of the 28 NFL owners. Six teams in the league are based in the U. S. and four outside it (table).

Financial stability is built into the league's structure. The downfall of most startup leagues, including the USFL, has been bidding wars over star players. But the World League, not the teams, signs and pays players. And all players have the same contract: a base salary averaging $20,000 (depending on position) for the four-month season and individual and team bonuses that can add up to four times that amount. "Money has been taken out of the formula for success," says Joe Bailey, the league's chief operating officer.

Tight cost controls should keep player salaries to about $1.2 million per team this year. The league will also pay for team travel, coaches' salaries, and most marketing and administration. To meet the bills, the league will collect some $25 million a year from TV contracts in the U. S. and Europe--mostly from a two-year deal with ABC--and an additional $4 million to $6 million a year in league sponsorships from the likes of Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc.

The U. S. owners paid $11 million apiece for franchises, while the overseas owners will pay out of future earnings. To support weaker franchises (likely to be in Europe), 40% of gate receipts will be divided equally among the teams.

All that planning will be for naught, however, if the World League can't win fans. The rules are designed to speed play and increase scoring. But 56-35 games may not make up for a lack of superstars. While USFL fans were able to cheer on the likes of Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, and Jim Kelly, the new league won't fight the NFL for prize players.

CRUCIAL PLAYGROUNDS. A more serious problem may be generating interest in Europe. American football is still only a curiosity there. The exhibition games are single events, featuring well-known NFL teams, played in the warm summer. That's a far cry from getting fans to sit in a cold spring drizzle to watch a bunch of unknowns. Evidence of the uphill struggle: The league owns and operates the Frankfurt franchise because it can't find a European buyer. Even in Britain, where a commercial TV network has shown American football since 1982, audiences last season were down two-thirds from their 1985-86 peak.

In the end, the only way American football will fly outside the U. S. is if the game filters down into the playgrounds, as basketball has done in southern Europe. With the NFL behind it, the new World League may well do the same. Meanwhile, at least it's saving nearly 500 behemoths from becoming burger-flippers.

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