19! 95! Hike!

The first time it tried to launch a progeny overseas, the National Football League got lugged off the field on a stretcher. Its World League of American Football, created in 1991, proved popular in Europe but a loser stateside. The final score: $45 million in red ink and a lot of lost credibility.

Now, it's comeback time. By spring of 1995, a new World League will start play with a trimmed-down budget, an all-European lineup, and new financial backing. BUSINESS WEEK has learned that the NFL owners are set to approve two new equity partners: Viacom International Inc.'s MTV Europe and Capital Cities/ABC Inc.'s ESPN International. The NFL won't disclose how much is being invested--although the total, including the NFL's share, is expected to be less than $50 million.

FIREWORKS. It's a big gamble for the NFL: Another international flop could damage the league's image. And while basketball and baseball are both finding audiences overseas, pro football's attempt to build an international presence is bringing mixed results. Television ratings for American football have declined in some markets, as has attendance at preseason "American Bowl" games. And while sales of NFL-licensed merchandise continue to climb, to some $300 million last year, recession in Europe and Japan has flattened growth.

The new World League will try to bolster football's status--while avoiding the mistakes made last time. To avoid cost overruns, it will limit salaries, to about $30,000 for the average lineman, and attract sponsorship money. Owners will rely mostly on gate receipts from the league's six teams for revenue. Oddly, neither MTV nor ESPN is expected to actually broadcast the games. Instead, MTV will fashion a hip marketing image; ESPN will get involved in production planning and broadcast negotiations.

The NFL will add in such high-wattage glitz as fireworks, marching bands, and cheerleaders to draw crowds, and is negotiating with Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp., among others, to sign on as sponsors. Those backers will have to be patient: Football in Europe likely will catch on just a few yards at a time.

David Greising in Atlanta, with bureau reports

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