It started with a press conference in Chicago on October 2, 1973. Some eight months later, on Wednesday, July 10, 1974, the World Football League (WFL) kicked off its only complete season. If football fans remember anything about this league it’s the fact that it collapsed quickly, not even finishing its second season. Small crowds, missed payrolls, and constantly relocating teams have made the league a laughable footnote in pro football history. At the time, though, it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
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The league was founded by Gary Davidson who had already started the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1967 and the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1972 to challenge the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) respectively.
Those rival leagues had their challenges to be sure, largely financial, as teams folded or moved each season, sometimes mid-season. However, there were a number of successful franchises in both leagues. The ABA was in its sixth year while the WHA had just started its second when the WFL was announced.
The WFL, of course, was going up against the National Football League (NFL). It seems crazy now, but back then the NFL hadn’t quite reached its pinnacle of success on the U.S. sports landscape. After completing a merger with the American Football League (AFL) in 1970, the NFL once again had no competition. It was also facing a players strike in 1974 and had among the lowest paid players in professional sports. Gary Davidson saw an opportunity and began forming his new league.
Among the initial group of WFL owners was Canadian multi-millionaire John Bassett who owned the Toronto Toros in the WHA. Bassett gave the league instant credibility when on March 31, 1974, he announced the signing of superstars Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and Jim Kiick who two years earlier helped the Miami Dolphins win their second consecutive Super Bowl. The trio would play for the Toronto Northmen but wouldn’t be available until the 1975 season. The deal, worth $3.5 million was the biggest ever in sports.
Three days later, Birmingham signed Oakland Raiders star quarterback Kenny Stabler to a contract for the 1976 season. The Chicago Fire signed Cincinnati Bengals QB Virgil Carter for the 1974 season.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as many teams switched cities and owners before the start of the season. Some teams, like the Detroit Wheels and New York Stars, had trouble securing stadium leases and had to settle for playing in smaller venues. The Wheels wound up playing in Eastern Michigan University’s Rynearson Stadium, while the Stars were forced to use tiny Downing Stadium on Randall's Island between Manhattan and Queens. Bassett’s Toronto Northmen wound up in Memphis as the Southmen after a Canadian politician threatened to introduce legislation to keep the WFL out of Canada in an effort to protect the always-struggling Canadian Football League (CFL).
By July, though, the teams were settled and ready to play. Interest in the WFL was boosted by the NFL player strike as well as several rule changes that were adopted by the new league to make the game more exciting. Among the changes were the moving of the goal posts to the back of the end zone, moving kickoffs from the 40-yard line to the 30 to improve kick returns, returning missed field goals to the line of scrimmage except when inside the 20-yard line, moving the hash marks inward closer to the center of the field, and a 15-minute overtime period to help break ties. The NFL quickly adopted nine of the 11 changes and eventually settled their labor issues, but the WFL still made a huge opening day splash.
The new league opened with five games that Wednesday night with a nationally televised game played on Thursday. That’s how the schedule would work for the rest of the season, as Davidson reasoned by Wednesday people would be done talking about the previous Sunday’s NFL games and not quite geared up for the following Sunday’s contests. The only exception to the Wednesday and Thursday games was granted to The Hawaiians (no Honolulu or Hawaii before that nickname, just The Hawaiians), who played their home games on Sunday afternoons.
On opening night, over 55,000 fans watched the Philadelphia Bell defeat the Portland Storm 33 to 8. In Chicago, the Fire welcomed 42,000 to Soldier Field, also the home of the storied Chicago Bears of the NFL, and treated them to a win over the Houston Texans. In Memphis, 30,000 fans, including Elvis Presley, witnessed the Southmen dispatch the Detroit Wheels 34 to 15. Only the Florida Blazers had a disappointing turnout as only 18,000 fans came out to see the home team edge The Hawaiians 8 to 7.
The next night, 59,112 fans packed the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville to watch the hometown Sharks beat the New York Stars 14 to 7. The game was broadcast nationally on the syndicated TVS network. In the late 1990s, someone found an old tape of it, which wound up in the hands of NFL Films. They used the footage in an episode dedicated to the league:
The crowds weren’t as spectacular the following week, though 4 of the 6 games drew over 25,000 fans. In Week 3, the Bell welcomed almost 65,000 to a game against the Stars. And that’s where it all started to unravel. On August 4, just after the fourth week of the season, it was revealed that the huge crowds in Philadelphia and Jacksonville were the result of free or greatly discounted tickets. Once those stopped, the attendance figures plummeted in those markets. It was a terrible blow to the league’s credibility. Even though the not-quite-as-large crowds in Chicago, Memphis, Birmingham, and Southern California were legitimate, the scandal overshadowed those early success stories.
Elsewhere in the WFL, cracks were beginning to show, particularly in New York, Detroit, Jacksonville, and Houston. So dire were things in Detroit, their home game against the Portland Storm was moved to London, Ontario. Efforts to sell the team failed as it slid into bankruptcy and folded in September. Jacksonville had folded just days earlier. The Houston Texans moved to Shreveport, Louisiana and became the Steamer. The New York Stars moved to Charlotte and were taken over by Upton Bell (the son of the late NFL commissioner Bert Bell) with an option to buy the team which was renamed the Hornets.
With 10 teams remaining, the league limped toward the playoffs and were down to 9 after the Chicago Fire threw in the towel with a week to go in the regular season following a 10-game losing streak. Six teams made the playoffs with the Birmingham Americans and Florida Blazers ending up in World Bowl I and, as it turned out, only.
In the championship game, Birmingham built a 22-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but Florida rallied with three TDs to get within one point. However, the Americans hung on to win before 32,000 fans in their home stadium, Legion Field. Following the game, the winner’s locker room was raided by sheriff’s deputies and the team's uniforms confiscated to help settle the club’s debts.
As with the league’s first nationally televised game, footage of the championship matchup was recently discovered and posted:
Surprisingly, the league returned in 1975 but only made it through 13 weeks of a 20-game schedule. It left behind dozens of crazy stories that we’ll be sharing here on the Old School Shirts blog.