World Football League

by Stan Lech, Jr. (edited by James Swinney)

When the National Football League and the American Football League officially became a single entity on January 1, 1970, the NFL effectively eliminated its only outside competition. Certainly the Canadian Football League existed but it posed no real threat to anybody.

The NFL was the only game in town. For a while anyway. The announcement of a proposed pro football league on August 2, 1973 sent out mixed emotions. The World Football League would fold miserably just two years later.

THE IDEA for the WFL was created in the mind of Orange County California attorney Gary L. Davidson. Davidson was instrumental in the formation of the ABA and was a co-founder af the WHA. Often referred to as a "promoter or franchise broker," he nonetheless convinced twelve individuals or groups to purchase franchises.

The WFL season would run from July to the last Friday in November when the league would play its championship "World Bowl."

Radical rule changes adopted by the WFL included 7 points for a touchdown followed by a run or pass option for an "action point," kickoffs from the 30-yard line, overtime to decide ties, and moving the goalposts back to the rear of the endzone. And there were more. Many of these rules were eventually adopted by the NFL.

THE INVESTORS in the WFL were for the most part underfinanced from the very beginning. The founding fathers of the WFL paid $100,000 for their franchises. Subsequent franchises went from $250,000 to 1.6 million for a team that started in Washington, D.C. transferred to Norfolk, VA and ended up in Orlando as the Florida Blazers.

John Bassett of Toronto was perhaps the most qualified of the WFL owners. At the time, he owned or was an owner of teams in the CFL, WHA, and WTT. Blocked out of Toronto by government legislation, Bassett opted for Memphis.

Birmingham owner Bill Putman had prior leadership with the NHL Philadelphia and Atlanta clubs.

The New York franchise was owned by Bob Schmertz with the help from Howard Baldwin. Both were involved with the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers.

Many teams were actually owned by a group of investors and the money disappeared quickly. Along with Memphis, only Hawaii and Southern California had competent WFL leadership.

THE CITIES granted franchises for 1974 in the WFL ranged from the bold Chicago, Houston, Anaheim, Philadelphia to the unique (Memphis, Birmingham, Honolulu). The New York Stars played in dilapidated Downing Stadium. The Stars moved mid-season to Charlotte and were renamed the Hornets .

Houston also moved in mid-season to nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. The Steamers, as they were called survived 1974 and also fielded a 1975 team.

The Detroit Wheels and Jacksonville Sharks both folded after 14 games of a 20 game schedule. Chicago forfeited its last game of the season to end a horrendous 11 game losing streak .

The 1975 version the WFL saw 11 teams in the fold. All except San Antonio at least competed the same city the year before, if not under different ownership. Essentially, the new San Antonio Wings were the old Florida Blazers.

The Chicago Winds folded after 5 games and the WFL died not long after.

THE COACHES in the World Football League lacked name recognition for the most part with the exception of Florida Head coach Jack Pardee and Southern California Head Coach Tom Fears.

Many coaches in the WFL were recruited from the CFL although a few such as Philadelphia Bell coach Ron Waller actually did coach in the NFL.

In 1975 a few of the original coaches returned to "The New League." Tom Fears, John McVay of Memphis, and Ron Waller were among the returnees. Waller, however was soon replaced by assistant Willie Wood.

THE PLAYERS signing on to play in the WFL were in Gary Davidson's words "pro rejects." Very few NFL players made the jump to the new league in 1974. In fact most of the rosters consisted of rookies and semi-pro players from the eastern ACFL and recently defunct Continental Football League. Each WFL team did at least try to sign someone with NFL on their resume.

The highpoint for the league was probably when Memphis owner John Bassett signed the Miami Dolphin trio of Kiick, Csonka, and Warfield in March, 1974. They joined the WFL in 1974 after the 1974 NFL season. Other players also signed "future" contracts with WFL teams. The league folded before many of the players finished their NFL option years. The Canadian Football League also provided some players as well.

THE CREDIBILITY of the WFL was slightly tarnished to begin with. In 1974 the league had a jump start on the NFL courtesy of a player strike. Attendances in opening games were remarkable. It was later uncovered that many of the 120,000 attending Philadelphia's first two home games got in with discount tickets or for free. A similar scam in Jacksonville was divulged. Two team relocations and two folding teams were some of the reasons that WFL president Gary Davidson was forced out.

Birmingham defeated Florida in the World Bowl then faced the indignity of having to hand over their equipment to Sheriff's deputies because of debt.

The 1975 WFL, d/b/a, "The New League" made a vain attempt to restore public confidence in their venture. The league split the season into a Summer and Fall schedule. New players and most importantly new money temporarily revitalized the WFL.

Fan apathy took its toll. Chicago fell by the wayside and rumors circulated that others would follow. The league finally succumbed on October 22, 1975.

EPILOGUE As the WFL slowly expired it was obvious that there were problems before the first snap. Some say it was greed. Or maybe an illusion. Most investors were not prepared to absorb large losses. Stadiums played a part too. Detroit's home field was located 30 miles west of Downtown Detroit in Ypsilanti.

The league did have innovation but to have games scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday nights probably carried things too far. The league did not have a major network T.V. deal. TVS had a $1.5 million deal to syndicate a "game of the week" for the WFL. Problem was that independent stations had to pick-up the broadcasts.

In 1975, new WFL President Chris Hemmeter introduced a fiscal plan aptly named "The Hemmeter Plan." It was supposed to literally protect the teams from themselves. It didn't.

The World Football League gave us teams with singular nicknames like the Sun, Storm, Fire and Thunder. And they lost more than $20,000,000 doing it . . . Even so, the lessons of the WFL were not learned by all and seven short years later a new league was born and in the end would suffer the same sad fate as the World Football League.

© 1996-2005 Robert Phillips. All rights reserved.