The History of Pro Football in Memphis

November 05, 2020

The Liberty Bowl Memphis

Almost since the inception of professional football, Memphis has longed to have a major league team, preferably in the National Football League (NFL). Despite many close calls, the city has never been able to permanently land an NFL team. Nonetheless, it has had several pro football teams over the years.

The Memphis Tigers

Formed in 1927 as the New Bry’s Hurricanes, Memphis’ first football team became the Tigers in 1928. Considered to be a semi-pro outfit, the Tigers played many NFL opponents, including the Green Bay Packers, whom they defeated 20 to 6, and the Chicago Bears with whom they split a series. 

Inspired by this success against two of the NFL’s best teams, Tigers owner S.A. Goodman gathered other team owners in the South to form the American Football League (AFL) in 1934. Goodman's goal was to compete on the same level as the NFL. However, football historians consider that AFL to be a minor league. It should not be confused with the first AFL from 1926 or the second AFL from 1936. 

Goodman’s AFL only lasted one year as just two teams put rosters together for 1935, forcing the league to dissolve and along with it, the Tigers. Still beloved in the hearts of the area’s football fans, the Tigers nickname was officially adopted by the University of Memphis in 1939. The school had independently been calling its teams the Tigers for years. This move, though, was viewed as an homage to the former pro team.

Possible NFL or AFL Expansion

All was quiet until the late 1950s when the NFL, motivated by the start of a rival league, the (fourth) American Football League, began expanding into new markets. As the two leagues fought over players, TV networks, and press coverage, many cities sought teams in one of the two (sometimes both) circuits.

Memphis was often mentioned as a possible location for a team, but no local ownership group ever emerged. Cities like Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and more, received teams while Memphis looked on. The NFL/AFL merger was completed in 1970. At that time, with 26 teams in the fold, it looked like the awarding of new teams was over.

The World Football League

In 1973, though, another rival league, The World Football League (WFL), was announced. It was to begin playing in 1974. Memphis was awarded a franchise owned by a man named Steve Arnold. However, he couldn’t secure a lease on the Liberty Bowl and instead headed for Houston to form the Texans.

Meanwhile, Canadian businessman John F. Bassett was seeking a new home for his Toronto Northmen. The Canadian government was threatening legislation to block an American football league from operating north of the border, so Bassett moved his team to Memphis. Officials in Tennessee liked the cut of his jib and leased him the Liberty Bowl.

The Memphis Southmen

It probably helped that a few months earlier, while still in Toronto, Bassett had signed three players from the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins. The trio of Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and Jim Kiick did not play for Bassett’s team until 1975, but they immediately gave the team and league legitimacy. Before playing a single down, the Toronto Northmen became the Memphis Southmen. Fans and the media in Memphis weren’t keen on that nickname and unofficially called them the Grizzlies. 

The Southmen were one of the most successful teams in the WFL, but, unfortunately, most of Bassett’s fellow owners had neither the business smarts nor, more importantly, the money to run a professional football franchise. In October of 1975, just over halfway through its second season, the WFL collapsed. Bassett, along with the owners of the Birmingham WFL franchise, applied for membership in the NFL. The older league turned them down.

Just before the WFL began its inaugural season, Memphis was often named as a possible location for an NFL expansion team. That chatter continued for several years as the older league mulled adding teams while allowing some clubs, reluctantly, to move.

The United States Football League

In 1983, another rival football league set up shop. The United States Football League (USFL) debuted in March of that year. With teams in 12 cities, it played its games in the spring. John Bassett was involved, but his team was in Tampa. Memphis did not receive a team, but the city did get an expansion franchise for the 1984 season.

The team was nicknamed the Showboats, and they were a hit drawing over 27,000 fans in 1984 and over 30,000 in 1985. Notable players included future NFL stars Reggie White and future pro wrestler Lex Luger. 

In 1985, the USFL announced it would start playing its games in the fall, starting in 1986. It also sued the NFL and won but was awarded only three dollars in damages. By the end of 1985, after three seasons, the league was out of business.

The Canadian Football League

The NFL continued to flirt with the city as Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, formed an ownership group that included former Showboats' owner William Dunavant and the estate of Elvis Presley. Hoping to be part of the 1995 expansion class, the group had high hopes. However, it was Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida that the NFL chose. 

Smith then opted to join the Canadian Football League (CFL) with a team called the Mad Dogs. Admiring Smith’s deep pockets, the CFL welcomed Memphis as part of an overall expansion effort into the United States that included several other cities. The team lasted only one year as the league decided to retreat across the border for the 1996 season and return to being a nine-team, Canadian-only operation. 

The NFL Shows Interest Again...Sort of

Two years later, the Houston Oilers decided to relocate to Nashville. While a stadium was being built there, the team planned to play its home games in Memphis. Local fans did not take to the idea of a temporary NFL team and stayed away from the Liberty Bell in droves. So terrible was attendance, the Oilers opted to move to Nashville a year earlier and play at Vanderbilt University's 41,000-seat stadium. 

The XFL

In 2000, Memphis again had a pro football team, this time in the XFL, the brainchild of WWE founder and head honcho Vince McMahon. Like the USFL, the XFL played a spring schedule, something that favored a team in Memphis. With no college or high school games to compete with at that time of year, the Maniax, as they were nicknamed, drew over 20,000 fans a game, finishing with five wins and five losses. The XFL, though, folded after just one season. It reformed in 2020, but Memphis was not included.

The AAF

The last effort to place a pro football team in Memphis came in 2019 with the formation of the Alliance of American Football or AAF. Like the USFL and XFL (both versions), the AAF played a spring schedule. Memphis was home to the Express. Using a centralized ownership structure similar to Major League Soccer. the AAF ran out of money halfway through its inaugural season. 

In four games, the Express drew an average of just 12,000 fans per game before the AAF ran out of money halfway through its inaugural season. Memphis, once again, without a pro football franchise.

Memphis isn’t alone, however, as several other cities have suffered a nearly identical fate, including Birmingham, Orlando, and San Antonio, which we’ll explore in future blog posts.




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