Saturday, June 30, 2007

He who WLAFs last ...

The NFL this week pulled the ridiculous-looking 220-volt plug on its spring developmental league, which was founded 16 years ago as the World League of American Football and was known at various times as the World League, the NFL European League, NFL Europe and, lastly, NFL Europa. The NFL says the move was necessary as it shifts its focus to "presenting the NFL to the widest possible global audience," but the decision to turn the lights out essentially puts an end to the NFL's noble but doomed effort to make tackle football a truly international game.

The league's original name, the World League of American Football, or WLAF, reflected the NFL's global ambitions. There were 10 teams, including six in the United States and one each in Montreal, London, Barcelona and Frankfurt. By the end of its run, the league had only six teams, and five of them were in Germany: Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Rhein (Dusseldorf). The fact that the Germans were the only foreigners to develop an interest in American football is not terribly surprising. Germany long ago mastered the blitz and the long bomb and is well-accustomed to cheering wildly and waving banners as helmeted brutes smash through the line and seize large chunks of opposition territory. Indeed, the switch to the name NFL Europa was an acknowledgement of how much the league had concentrated its camps in Deutschland. Besides, it was a name bound to give Germans of a certain age and disposition the warm fuzzies. (The sixth NFL Europa franchise was in Amsterdam, which demonstrates that you can get a Dutchman to watch anything if he smokes enough hash.)

The rest of the world, however, generally isn't interested in American football, just like America generally isn't interested in rest-of-the-world futbol, or "soccer," as we call it this side of the Pond. It's just a cultural thing. We complain, for example, that "nothing happens" in soccer because we see these guys run around in short pants all afternoon, yet the game ends up 1-0 -- or 0-0. Foreigners complain that "nothing happens" in football because after every play, the clock stops and the teams call a circle jerk on the field. We laugh at their fruity-sounding team names like "Aston Villa" and "Tottenham Hotspur," and they laugh at our fruity-sounding team names like "Tennessee Titans" and "Jacksonville Jaguars." Both sides have a point.

The NFL shut down its European experiment just as it's preparing to play the first-ever regular season game outside North America. The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants (two more snigger-worthy names, come to think of it) will play in London's new Wembley Stadium on Oct. 28. When tickets were made available in May, they sold out almost immediately. Pretty impressive -- but recall that in 1994, World Cup games in the United States were selling out 90,000-seat stadiums, leading many to proclaim that soccer had finally "arrived" in this country. And just as pro soccer has slid to the bottom of the U.S. sports heap in the intervening 13 years, so will American football lose its novelty factor among the blood-sausage-eating set once the NFL has every team playing a regular season game in Europe every year, as it has said it plans to do. People will line up around the block to see the first game this fall -- especially with storied (if not particularly good) franchises such as Miami and New York involved -- but who's going to come out in the rain to watch the Houston Texans and the St. Louis Rams collide in Budapest in 2011?

But we're not here to bury the erstwhile WLAF. We're here to praise it as one of the weirdest fucking undertakings in the NFL's books. You could hardly have found a more delightful rathole to pour money down -- an estimated $30 million a year by the end. So, some thoughts:

The first president of the league was Mike Lynn, who was instrumental in building a three-time Super Bowl winner in Dallas. Unfortunately, he did so as general manager on the Minnesota Vikings. It was Lynn who in 1989 concluded that the Vikings were just one piece short of a championship team -- and that the missing piece was Herschel Walker. So he shipped off all the rest of his pieces to the Dallas Cowboys, who, sure enough, assembled a championship team out of them, while Walker averaged 54 yards a game in Minnesota. After just a year in the WLAF front office, Lynn returned to Minnesota to resume kicking Vikings fans in the testes.

By order of Congress, every story about NFL Europe had to reference Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme and Adam Vinatieri, all of whom played for the Amsterdam Admirals before becoming NFL stars. Their names, and that of Jon Kitna (Barcelona Dragons), were introduced as evidence that the league really was a developmental environment rather than a dumping ground for sixth-round draft picks. Warner, of course, is the patron saint of all minor league football players. As Brett Forrest wrote in Long Bomb, the definitive history of the XFL:
How it happened and why it happened, none of that mattered to the castoffs jacked up on Warner's mythology. The important thing was that it happened, and that it could happen again. ... Kurt Warner's departed minor-league ghost assumed a very real presence, and XFL players references his story only half as much as they dreamed it.
But for every Warner, there were a dozen Stan Gelbaughs, David Archers and J.T. O'Sullivans. The hero of the final World Bowl was Casey Bramlet. The players may have been kidding themselves, but NFL teams weren't. NFL Europa wasn't a place for a player to develop. It was a place for a player to get a last chance before the parent club cut him loose completely.

Though the NFL fudged the truth in explaining its decision to kill the European league, it at least was honest in saying the league was a marketing tool. If it had played up the whole developmental aspect too much, it would have had to confront the reality that the vast majority of these players weren't developing anything except chronic conditions. Contrast this with the NBA's "D-League," which exists because pro basketball's obsession with teenage boys was destroying the sport. Having essentially encouraged a decade's worth of high school kids to throw away their educations to pursue a pro career that they'd never catch, the NBA then had to find a place to put them. The next big star to come out of the D-League will be the first.

So NFL Europa twinkles out of existence. The Frankfurt Galaxy is (are?) history. Same with the Scottish Claymores, London Monarchs, Sacramento Surge, Montreal Machine, Memphis Mad Dogs and many more. Goodbye to bewildered crowds cheering wildly whenever someone kicks a ball. Goodbye to those big Skoda patches and other uniform ads. Goodbye to the enchanting sound of a chorus of whistles ringing through a nearly empty stadium. Goodbye to round-the-clock reruns on NFL Network. From this day forward, Germans seeking a football fix will look glumly at their stadiums and declare: "I see nothing! Nothing!"

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