DALLAS -- NFL owners probably missed the boat when it came to the World League. Here was a way to colonize foreign shores. But they seemed compelled to view the World League as a poor relation instead of a potentially rewarding export.
The Barcelona Dragons may, or may not, breathe again as a member of the World League. NFL owners, who also have custody of the World League, approved a one-year suspension of the 10-team global football experiment at a meeting yesterday. The World League is scheduled to resume in 1994, after restructuring. But don't hold your breath. The World League lost its vision when its visionary was shown the door.
The owners' key mistake was rejecting the concept of the World League's inaugural president. He had the World League's marketing all mapped out. He saw the league as a flavorful novelty loaded with selling points. He believed the World League could build on the same shrinking-planet concept that is pepping up interest in international affairs such as golf's Ryder Cup and Davis Cup tennis.
Such was the way Tex Schramm, the World League's first president, would have gone about popularizing the concept. He had had some success in introducing winning combinations.
Schramm saw sports spectacles through the eyes of a veteran network official -- which he was at CBS before he hooked up with the Dallas Cowboys. He gained a reputation for creative packaging that often obscured just how practical his visions really were -- and how sound his fundamentals. He knew the public and its cravings, and proved it.
Though Schramm did not invent cleavage, he envisioned it in fringed vests on a football sideline when he was drawing the Cowboys blueprint. "What a concept!" the rest of the NFL and its TV partners had to admit.
But perhaps the NFL owners were all Texed-out by the time Schramm's Cowboys belonged to Jerry Jones and his new vision. The World League replaced Schramm in the fall of 1990, before it played its first game.
Contrary to Schramm's vision, the owners wanted the new league to serve as a developmental arm for the NFL. They should have considered how much network interest minor leagues usually command. American TV audiences would have a steady diet of CBA or baseball from Gastonia if "developmental" meant decent ratings. Though the World League produced few who made it to the NFL, Schramm would not have pitched the new league quite so obviously as a remedial, second-rate product. Not when all of the surrounding, atmospheric elements were so intriguing.
Here you had teams in Frankfurt and London, for example. Schramm had big ideas.
"The whole thing was that you had to glamorize the international aspect," Schramm said yesterday. "The thing was to make it something different, something unique. Then it didn't have to be compared to the NFL. College football is college football. They are not playing at the same level as the NFL, but who cares? People love it for what it is."
Schramm said the World League, which played two years, already left a legacy in Europe. The games featured elaborate halftime shows, cheerleaders and others accessories unseen abroad. Schramm said European rugby and soccer matches have begun to incorporate the showmanship pioneered by the World League.
But the NFL owners preferred to emphasize the "developmental" aspect of the project. They made it the ultimate co-dependent. And now they are using it as a pawn in their other business, particularly their antitrust quagmire.
Meanwhile, what might have been a good thing if properly publicized became a suspended curiosity. The owners plan to focus on the non-U.S. markets in restructuring the World League. It sounds as if they will adopt some of Schramm's original sense of how the league would play best in the long run.
Much of its failure turned on that one bad word, a word the owners somehow thought would help to clarify the concept: "Developmental."
They would have done better to take it from Tex, to go with glamour and atmosphere and see how the World League turned, or turned out.
Schramm joked yesterday that about the only thing he does that is not always, dead-solid practical is own race horses.
In most other matters, however, Schramm has a track record for making things run.