The WFL's Jacksonville Sharks

July 13, 2021

The WFL's Jacksonville Sharks

Jacksonville’s entry into the World Football League (WFL) in 1974 wasn’t the first professional sports team to use the nickname Sharks. That honor goes to the Los Angeles Sharks of the World Hockey Association (WHA) that first hit the ice in 1972. However, Jacksonville’s first pro football team was probably the most interesting team to ever use that nickname.

Their story began in October 1973 when a man named Gary Davidson announced the formation of the WFL at a press conference held in Chicago. Davidson and his associates had previously put together two other leagues. One was the aforementioned WHA. The other was the American Basketball Association (ABA). Both were created to compete with the established National Hockey League and National Basketball Association (NBA), respectively. Davidson and his cohorts next targeted pro football and the National Football League (NFL).

While both the ABA (founded in 1967) and WHA (founded in 1972) were struggling, they were successful enough to get owners in the older leagues to think about absorbing their upstarts, or at least a few rebel teams. A new football league seemed like the perfect venture, as the sport was on the cusp of becoming, unquestionably, the most popular sport in America. Add to that the fact that football players were the lowest paid of the four major sports and the possibility of a player strike in 1974 that would leave a void for fans, and it all fell into place.

Davidson signed up a dozen owners, including DeLand, Florida businessman Fran Monaco. In some accounts, including an NFL Films documentary on the WFL, Monaco was reported to be a brassiere salesman, an apparent attempt to make the Jacksonville Sharks, and the league's, story even crazier. However, no such embellishment was needed.

DeLand was the owner of a successful string of medical laboratories and an avid pro football fan who had been to every Super Bowl. In January 1974, against the advice of his inner circle, he gladly coughed up the $450,000 for a franchise in the WFL. After all, the asking price just a few months before was $250,000.

Monaco chose to put his team in football-mad, but pro-sports-free, Jacksonville. He secured a lease for his team at the storied Gator Bowl and began to assemble his team’s roster, coaching staff, and front office.

His first move was to hire his wife Douglas as team vice president. Her only role, it seemed, would be walking her beloved poodle up and down the sidelines during home games. Monaco then hired a local high school football coach, Bud Asher as the team's head coach. A popular and well-known guy but one with no head coaching experience beyond high school and semi-pro ball. Soon after that, the Florida Tourist Board pleaded with Monaco to change the team’s nickname, as they feared it would put the state in a bad light.

The team got off to a great start, though, or so it seemed. The rest of the WFL kicked off on Wednesday, July 10, 1974. The Sharks debuted on national TV the next night, facing the New York Stars at the Gator Bowl. A crowd of 59,000 turned out. Things looked promising.

The only hiccup came when a transformer blew during the game, which cut power to the stadium. Power was restored 15 minutes later, and the Sharks went on to an exciting 14-7 win. The next home game drew over 40,000 fans. And then it all started to unravel.

It was soon discovered that attendance figures for the Sharks, as well as several other WFL teams, had been padded. Tickets, it turned out, had been given away or sold at greatly reduced prices. Even the teams that didn’t inflate their reported attendance were affected, as the entire league fell under suspicion, damaging the WFL's credibility.

The scandal aside, the Sharks drew enough legitimate fans to gain quite a loyal following. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep the team from operating deep in the red, and Monaco’s bank accounts were soon hemorrhaging. In danger of missing payroll, he borrowed $27,000 from Asher, then fired him two days later.

By September, the league had taken over the team as Monaco filed for bankruptcy. He lost his medical labs in the process, and the stress of the whole ordeal landed his wife in the hospital. Unable to find a suitable ownership group, the league folded the team.

Oddly, the city was back in the WFL the following year with a team called the Express, owned by a group of local businessmen and attorneys headed by Earl Knabb. While that team was better run than its predecessor, the league was not. The whole thing came to a crashing halt on October 22, 1975, barely halfway through the league’s second season.


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