With National Football League training camps set to open in about a week, team owners are starting to return from such vacation hot spots as Europe, Latin America and the Hawaiian Islands.

Some would say that aside from all the mai tais and luaus, the true mission of their travel abroad was to scout out the future of the league.As NFL players begin to sweat their way into shape for the upcoming season, football executives have been at work positioning the league to accomplish the goal of most every business in the world: the complete domination of its industry domestically and internationally.

"I'm very bullish on the NFL," said investment banker Elliott McCabe, a senior vice president at NationsBank Sports Finance Group, which helps arrange loans and investments for the NFL. "Their revenue growth is double-digit. They could be doing five billion in revenue over a five-to-seven year horizon."

McCabe has good reason for his optimism. In addition to $17.6 billion in television contracts, the league is assured peace with its union through 2003 and taxpayers are spending millions to build their teams new state-of-the-art stadiums.

"What they are driving is the NFL trademark name. And by expanding that internationally into Europe and Asia, it's giving them more opportunity to export entertainment . . . and their television product," McCabe said.

Bigger Than the Bakery

At $3.5 billion in annual revenue, the NFL is bigger than Interstate Bakeries Corp., maker of Hostess snack cakes and Wonder Bread ($3.3 billion), and smaller than CBS Inc. ($5.4 billion).

Although the NFL is stronger than it's ever been, there's still plenty of room to grow, which leaves most league executives optimistic about the 21st century.

"If you want to dream," said NFL President Neil Austrian, "20 years into our future, you could see 50 NFL teams located in Europe, Asia and throughout the world; stadiums with amenities that are as good as your own living room; televisions on the back of the seat in front of you, allowing you to watch every game in the league and see every replay before the referees ... maybe even a (dolly) that delivers food to your seat; and an enormous television audience."

While such grandiose aspirations sound like pipe dreams, nothing seems out of reach for the ever-expanding NFL conglomerate.

Niche Competitors

The NFL owns all or part of most every niche competitor - the Canadian Football League is the exception - and the league and the players' union has been able to commit more than $100 million to foster growth among younger fans in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Japan.

"They just have to make sure the television product stays strong and they don't get greedy," said Frank Vuono, chief executive of Integrated Systems Inc., a New York-based sports marketing firm. "What fuels all this is scarcity. They have to be careful their product doesn't get over saturated."

In addition to getting children playing football, the league plans to use its European league to promote the sport there, as well as finding a way to keep football on the minds of Americans year-round.

Success in Europe would increase television and merchandising revenue.

The franchise in Frankfurt, the Galaxy, has been the jewel of the league, averaging 34,202 fans. Its 12,000 season tickets represent a 20 percent increase from 1997 and sponsorship revenue rose 50 percent to 1.5 million marks (US $852,500). In Amsterdam, the Admirals' 22 sponsors are a league high and have helped increase sponsorship sales by 36 percent.

More Sponsors

Sponsorship has been on the rise leaguewide. In the past year, NFL Europe negotiated a two-year, $8 million agreement with Deichmann, the largest shoe retailer in Germany. And German brewer Holsten-Brauerei AG signed a three-year, seven-figure agreement to sponsor the World Bowl.

"I liken it to what soccer has been trying to do for 20 or 30 years in this country," Austrian said. "I liken it to where basketball was prior to being adopted as an Olympic sport."

Back in the U.S., the NFL wants to develop a football derivative - possibly the Arena League - to offer fans football in the spring.

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson was the first NFL owner to buy an Arena League team. Saints President Bill Kuharich said Benson wanted to be able to sell football to young fans and families who couldn't afford NFL tickets.

"In the big picture," Kuharich said, "we're trying to expose the next generation to arena football, so when they grow up and get jobs, they will be in a position to buy NFL tickets."

Fans won't be worrying much about international television packages in the coming week; they just want good directions to training camp.

And the players? They're too worried about making the team to be bothered about grassroots efforts to develop an NFL following in Japan.

League owners, however, have a strong grasp of the potential of their business, and aren't afraid to dream of a future where NFL teams in London hitch a ride on the Concorde for a Sunday afternoon game in New York.

"Building the NFL trademark in Europe and Asia will give the league an even greater opportunity to export its entertainment product to markets throughout the world and to provide even greater advertising opportunities for global companies," McCabe said.