WFL Official Logo
|No. of teams||13 (all)|
|Last champion(s)||Birmingham Americans|
The World Football League was a short-lived American football league that played in 1974 and part of 1975. Although the league's proclaimed ambition was to bring American football onto a worldwide stage, the farthest the WFL reached was placing a team – the Hawaiians – in Honolulu, Hawaii. The league folded midway through its second season, in 1975. A new minor football league began play as the World Football League in 2008 after acquiring the rights to its trademarks and intellectual property.
The idea behind the World Football League originated with Tony Rizzano and Louis Goldman, who in 1973 proposed a Universal Football League that would include teams in Toronto, Mexico City, New York City, Anaheim, Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Memphis, and Birmingham. All but Phoenix and Mexico City would eventually get a new NFL or WFL franchise by the end of the decade; Phoenix would have to wait for a USFL team to arrive in 1983, while Mexico City still has no professional American football team (though it has hosted several neutral-site NFL games).
Gary L. Davidson was the driving force behind the WFL. He had helped start the successful American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, some of whose teams survived long enough to enter the established basketball and hockey leagues. His World Football League did not bring any surviving teams into the NFL, much less survive as a whole league.
To get the league off the ground, Davidson knew he needed investors. At a press conference held in Chicago, Davidson announced his core of investors, a group of men he called the "founding fathers". These men were Robert Schmertz, who owned the WHA's New England Whalers and NBA's Boston Celtics; a former hockey prospect named Howard Baldwin (future owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins), who ran the Boston Bulls charter; Ben Hatskin, who owned the WHA's Winnipeg Jets; and R. Steve Arnold, another WHA associate.
Perhaps one of the biggest of the "founding fathers" was a Canadian movie producer named John F. Bassett. A former tennis prodigy and owner of the WHA's Toronto Toros, Bassett came from a wealthy Canadian family. The family owned, among other entities, two Toronto newspapers and interests in television stations. The younger Bassett himself had been mulling starting his own professional football league when he happened to meet Davidson and was given a franchise for Toronto.
Along with the original founding fathers, the rest of the owners would soon fall into place, including a man whose own dreams of playing football were ended by a heart ailment, Thomas Origer, who would run the Chicago Fire.
Several prospective owners were forced to drop out. Davidson was willing to sell his Philadelphia team to investor Harry Jay Katz. Alas, Davidson would learn that Katz didn't have the strong resources that he claimed, and was in fact the target of several lawsuits. Davidson pulled back his offer to sell the rights to Philadelphia. Additionally, rumors of another upstart league, along with the opportunity of a labor strike in the NFL, forced Davidson to advance the new league's planned debut to 1974, rather than 1975.
One team went through several identities. The team slated to play in Maryland was to be called the Washington Capitals, but the expansion NHL team had already trademarked the rights to the nickname. A contest held to name the team came up with the name Ambassadors. The team then became the Baltimore-Washington Ambassadors, and then the Baltimore name was dropped, and the team simply became known as the Washington Ambassadors. In order to boost ticket sales, Washington owner Joe Wheeler offered former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas a contract as head coach and general manager of the team. Unitas declined, stating that he was already under contract to the San Diego Chargers. Spurned by Unitas, Wheeler reached out to Redskins linebacker Jack Pardee with the same offer. Pardee jumped at the chance, and quickly signed with the new league.
Wheeler in the meantime had engaged in a war for territory with Pardee's old boss, Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams. Wheeler wanted the Ambassadors to play at RFK Stadium, but Williams refused to allow it. Williams won the war, and the Ambassadors were on the move. Without ever stepping on the field, the team went through their third relocation, starting off as the Baltimore-Washington Ambassadors, to the Washington Ambassadors, and finally the Virginia Ambassadors.
The fledgling WFL did succeed in raising stagnant salaries in the NFL. Average salaries of NFL players were among the lowest in the four major North American sports, and the National Football League Players Association had gone on strike in July 1974 in an effort to lift many of the rules suppressing free agency and player salaries. With the uncertain labor situation, the WFL had the opportunity to provide players with a better deal than the NFL would give them, along with the promise of employment. Davidson's league garnered major publicity when the Toronto Northmen, led by John F. Bassett, signed three Miami Dolphins players, fullback Larry Csonka, halfback Jim Kiick, and wide receiver Paul Warfield to what was then the richest three-player deal in sports, an astounding US$3.5 million to start in 1975. The pact was a guaranteed, personal-services contract, so the trio would be paid even if the WFL did not survive its first season.
The NFL took notice, as did their players when they were approached to jump leagues. The Oakland Raiders lost both their quarterbacks; Ken Stabler, who signed with the Birmingham Americans and Daryle Lamonica, who penned a contract to play for the Southern California Sun starting in 1975. The Dallas Cowboys also took roster hits when WFL teams in Hawaii and Houston signed running back Calvin Hill and quarterback Craig Morton respectively. The Hawaiians also signed Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl WR John Gilliam and San Francisco 49ers All-Pro TE Ted Kwalick. However, Gilliam ended up with the Chicago Winds and Kwalick signed with the Philadelphia Bell prior to the 1975 season. By early June 1974, the WFL claimed they had some 60 NFL players under contract.
The top minor leagues in the United States at the time, the Atlantic Coast Football League and Seaboard Football League, were also tremendously affected. The ACFL had survived a suspension of operations in 1972 to return to play in 1973, only to have the WFL lure away most of the ACFL's and SFL's players with the prospect of playing in a "major" league. Both leagues were forced to fold; the ACFL and half the SFL folded immediately, with two teams joining the four remaining SFL teams to play in 1974. The SFL folded after an abbreviated 1974 season.
Playing a 20-game regular season schedule in 1974 – six games longer than the NFL's then 14-game slate – the WFL staged no exhibition games (although their teams did participate in preseason scrimmages). The season was to begin on Wednesday, July 10 and end on Wednesday, November 13. This was a 20-game season in 19 weeks --- a schedule accomplished by having double games (primarily Monday and Friday) on Labor Day weekend. Some complained that the schedule was poorly drafted; although most teams played on Wednesday nights with a national TV game slated for Thursday nights, the Hawaiians played their home games on Sunday afternoons. This meant that when the Hawaiians had a home game, they played an opponent who flew to Honolulu after having played just four days earlier. In addition, back-to-back meetings between two teams were common.
The WFL held a college draft in 1974, the first six rounds where held on January 22, 1974 with the remaining 30 rounds held February 5. David Jaynes quarterback from Kansas was the first player selected in the draft by Houston.
As was common with many upstart leagues, the WFL's intended lineup of teams changed several times before they even played a down. Most notably, Bassett's Toronto Northmen were forced to find a new home after the Canadian government threatened to ban any American football team from competing with the Canadian Football League. Though the Canadian Football Act never passed, the mere threat of it prompted Bassett to move the team to Memphis, where they became the Memphis Southmen, but were generally referred to by fans, local media, and even some official team materials as the "Grizzlies".
The original schedule called for a four-team playoff, with semifinal games held on Wednesday-Thursday November 20-November 21, and the World Bowl on Friday, November 29 (the night after Thanksgiving). League officials boldly discussed plans for expansion teams in Europe and Asia.
In the first few weeks, the WFL looked to be a resounding success. Attendance outpaced the first week of the American Football League in 1960, averaging just under 43,000 a game, but the box office numbers proved to be the beginning of the WFL's undoing. In Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Sharks admitted that anywhere from 14,000 to 44,000 people had attended their first two games for free or at significantly reduced prices. The Philadelphia Bell, whose first two home games totaled 120,253 fans, admitted that 100,198 tickets had been given away for free or sold at significantly reduced prices. Presumably the giveaways were intended in part to pique the public's curiosity and interest, but they ended up seriously eroding the league's credibility.
Six games into the first season, WFL franchises were in serious trouble. The Detroit Wheels were looking to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Florida Blazers made overtures of bringing the first place club to Atlanta. It was discovered that several teams had paid less than the original $120,000 franchise fee in order to meet Davidson's target of 12 teams, and that league officials had conducted little to no due diligence. As a result, seven of the 12 teams were badly under-capitalized (exceptions being Birmingham, Memphis, Philadelphia, Southern California and the Hawaiians).
For instance, the Portland Storm's players were reportedly being fed by sympathetic local fans, while the Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for not paying a laundry bill from the time the team was located in New York. The Birmingham Americans weren't paid for their last five games, the Florida Blazers weren't paid for the last three months of the season (and reportedly survived on McDonald's meal vouchers), and the Sharks weren't paid for what turned out to be their last six games.
The most dire situation, however, was that of the Detroit Wheels. The team's original 33 owners appeared to pay for team expenses out of pocket as they arose, resulting in what amounted to a club football team playing at the professional level. On several occasions, the team was left without uniforms when they didn't pay the cleaning bill, forcing them to cancel practice. After several hotels and airlines went unpaid, the Wheels were unable to fly to games or get a place for the players to stay without paying in advance, and were nearly forced to forfeit one game when they didn't have medical supplies or tape. The league was forced to take over the team after complaints from the players.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents for the WFL in 1974 involved former Raiders defensive end John Matuszak, who had left the NFL's Houston Oilers to play for the WFL's Houston Texans. While Matuszak worked out on the field, attorneys for the Oilers and federal marshals arrived at the stadium. Shortly after sacking New York Stars quarterback Tom Sherman, Matuszak was lifted from the game. The team had been handed a restraining order, and Matuszak could not play another down for the Texans. Matuszak waved the document for the home crowd to see, as to indicate why he was sitting on the bench. A federal judge ruled that Matuszak could not play for the Texans, since he was still under contract to the Oilers. The judge ruled that Matuszak could play for the Texans only when his NFL contract was up, meaning that Matuszak could not play for the Texans until the 1978 season.
By September, the barely one-year old league had bottomed out when two franchises relocated. The Houston Texans moved to Shreveport, Louisiana as the Shreveport Steamer, and they were followed a week later by the New York Stars, who relocated to Charlotte as the Charlotte Hornets. On top of this, the Wheels briefly moved one game to London, Ontario (this time with nary a complaint from Canadian officials).
In October, the league pulled the plug on the Wheels and the Sharks after 14 games; the folding of the Jacksonville franchise meant that the Gator Bowl would not host World Bowl I. (Coincidentally, Jacksonville was also slated to be the host of the 1986 USFL Championship Game, but that game was never played as the USFL folded; it would not be until February 2005 that the city would host its first championship pro football game, Super Bowl XXXIX.)
Davidson resigned as commissioner by the end of October 1974, and Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter was named the new commissioner a month later.
Late in the year, the league announced that it would award its Most Valuable Player a cash prize of $10,000 at the World Bowl. It was literally a cash prize; rather than endure the embarrassment of media sneers about whether a WFL check would clear, the league neatly stacked cash high upon a table in the middle of the field. The MVP award was a three-way split, and the players involved split the cash.
The playoff format itself was also chaotic; numerous playoff formats were tossed around, including brackets ranging from three to eight teams, and one owner who even suggested that the World Bowl be canceled and the championship handed to the regular-season champion Memphis Southmen. Eventually, six teams were chosen for the tournament: all three division winners, and three wild cards; however, the 9-11 Philadelphia Bell were awarded a wild card despite finishing one game behind the 10-10 Charlotte Hornets in the Eastern Division, as the Hornets could not afford to travel to Orlando for the first round.
Despite the disasters, many thought the WFL performed fairly well, though below NFL standards. Many games were tight, decided by seven points or less, and the Action Point, the one-point conversion run or pass attempt after a touchdown, was favored among WFL coaches and critics. The league championship – the World Bowl, or "World Bowl I" – was staged in Birmingham between the hometown Birmingham Americans and the Florida Blazers. The Action Point proved to be the decider as the Americans won the championship by a single point, 22-21. The day after the World Bowl, the champions' uniforms were confiscated by sheriff's deputies. (Sports Illustrated referred to the game, prophetically, as "The first, and possibly only World Bowl".)
Not even the World Bowl could go off without a hitch. Both teams were owed several weeks' back pay; the Americans only agreed to play when their owner promised them championship rings if they won. Aside from the money woes the league was having, the players did not hold back in complaining about the officiating during the game. Florida Blazers running back Tommy Reamon scored what he thought was a touchdown, but the officials on the field ruled that he fumbled the ball out of the end zone before he hit the ground, resulting in a touchback that gave the ball to Birmingham. Replays clearly showed that Reamon lost the ball after breaking the plane. While the phantom turnover did not account for any Birmingham points, it did serve to break the spirits of the Blazers. Birmingham led 15-0, with Birmingham quarterback Matthew Reed scoring an action point. Birmingham led 22-0, and thought they had the game wrapped up. However, Florida managed a small come back, trailing 22-21 as the gun went off in the fourth quarter.
As if losing a championship game in a squeaker wasn't bad enough, things got much worse. Florida head coach Jack Pardee bolted back to the NFL to take over the Chicago Bears. Many of the Birmingham players and coaches had not been paid in months, and to make matters worse, only days after their championship win, the Birmingham Americans jerseys were repossessed, along with every single piece of office furniture. The Florida Blazers suffered a similar fate, with pieces of their franchise sold off at a court-ordered auction.
The financial losses were mind-blowing: The Hawaiians had lost $3.2 million, while the New York Stars/Charlotte Hornets had over $2 million of debt, and just $94,000 in assets. The Jacksonville Sharks and Detroit Wheels were liquidated owing nearly $4 million, and Detroit had 122 creditors looking to recoup losses.
Many NFL stars who had been attracted to the league quickly sought to get out of their contracts. Quarterback Ken Stabler (Raiders), defensive end L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), and quarterback Craig Morton (Giants) all were able to get courts to nullify their contracts with WFL teams, while former NFL veterans like George Sauer, Charley Harraway, Leroy Kelly, and Don Maynard all limped off into retirement. Home-grown talent, like quarterbacks Tony Adams and Danny White, quickly bolted for the NFL, with Adams landing with the Kansas City Chiefs and White with the Dallas Cowboys, and Florida head coach Jack Pardee got star Blazers' tight end Greg Latta to jump ship with him to the NFL's Bears.
Though many predicted the WFL was dead, the league returned for the 1975 season with a new leader, commissioner Chris Hemmeter, former co-owner of the 1974 Hawaiians franchise. Hemmeter had developed a plan to restore a measure of financial sanity to the league by paying players and coaches based on a percentage of revenues. Several old teams returned under new names and new ownership. The deceased Sharks of Jacksonville came back as the 'Express.' The Portland Storm became the Portland Thunder, the Birmingham Americans were replaced by the Vulcans, and the Chicago Fire became the Winds. The World Bowl runner-up Florida Blazers folded, and their franchise rights were relocated to San Antonio, Texas, as the San Antonio Wings. Only two teams, Memphis and Philadelphia, returned with the same ownership from the prior season. Sports Illustrated, in its postmortem, noted the drastic change between 1974 and 1975 as if the two seasons were played by totally different leagues: one (1974), a bombastic credit risk, and the other (1975), a safer but much quieter, and much less noticed, entity that failed because it was ignored.
An idea produced by the league was to have players wear different colors of pants based on their position. Offensive linemen were to wear purple pants, running backs green pants, receivers blue pants, linebackers red, and defensive backs yellow. Quarterbacks and kickers were to wear white pants. In addition to the colors, the pants were also adorned with items such as pinstripes (for the offensive linemen) or large stars (for quarterbacks) for those not watching on color television. After a test run in preseason games, this idea was scrapped.
The league changed their scheduling format from 20 games without exhibitions to 18 games (played in 20 weeks due to the odd number of teams) with exhibitions. Gone were weeknight games; the new schedule had games on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. But the league still was snake-bit, as although the original plan called for a July 5 preseason opener and August 2 regular season openers, the regular season had to open a week earlier, with a single game on Saturday, July 26, due to a stadium conflict. This meant that a single regular season game was played in the midst of the last weekend of preseason play (with some preseason games being played the next night).
Several more NFL free agents, including Calvin Hill and Ted Kwalick, signed on with the struggling WFL. Memphis had secured three top-line, but fading Dolphins stars in Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. The Southern California Sun secured the services of former AFL and NFL quarterback Daryle Lamonica. The Chicago Winds made an offer to aging Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath, who seriously considered the offer, before refusing and re-signing with the New York Jets. The embarrassing rejection by Namath, after investing so much in the effort to sign him (the team even designed its uniform to emulate the Jets'), seriously hurt the Winds, who folded five weeks into the season. It also resulted in the loss of the WFL's national television deal (see below), rendering the league all but invisible.
Despite Hemmeter's efforts, several teams soon ran into financial difficulties, in part due to alarmingly low attendance figures. The Winds folded after five weeks, leaving the league with ten teams (which itself was a convenience, because it eliminated the mandatory bye week). On October 23, amid reports that four of its remaining ten teams were on the verge of folding, the entire league shut down and the Birmingham Vulcans, with a league-best record of 9-3, were proclaimed league champions.
With the relative financial stability of the Birmingham and Memphis clubs, both attempted to join the NFL but were refused. In 1979, the Memphis club owners filed an anti-trust suit against the NFL. Their case was ultimately dismissed on May 30, 1984, by which time the owners had already established the Tampa Bay Bandits in the next professional league, the United States Football League (which incidentally filed their own, more famous antitrust suit against the NFL in 1986). Although the NFL expanded by two teams in 1976, that expansion had been planned before the WFL's first season.
One of the issues facing the WFL going into 1975 was how to hold a draft. The owners of the WFL teams collectively agreed they did not have the money to seek out the top college prospects. Instead, the league came up with a different plan. Instead of drafting a certain player, a WFL team would draft an entire NFL or CFL team. This gave that team the rights to negotiate with players under contract for that team. For example, only the Charlotte Hornets had the right to offer contracts to players from the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Colts, and Detroit Lions, and only the Chicago Winds could offer contracts to players from the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, and Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
The league's struggles led to endless sarcastic comments (starting with the league's own abbreviation, which was often pronounced "Wiffle"). Chicago Fire offensive lineman Steve Wright quipped bitterly that he had been offered a million dollar contract: "A dollar a year for a million years!"
The WFL, for all its embarrassing miscues, produced a number of coaches who found success in the NFL:, notably Jack Pardee, Lindy Infante, and Marty Schottenheimer. Jim Fassel, a quarterback for the Hawaiians, became a head coach in the NFL and UFL, taking the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001 and the Las Vegas Locomotives to a win in the 2009 UFL Championship Game. Memphis head coach John McVay went on to become head coach of the New York Giants, but had more success as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980s dynasty years. Several players, most notably Pat Haden, Danny White, Alfred Jenkins, Greg Latta and Vince Papale, later found success in the NFL as well.
The league's most severe impact was on the Miami Dolphins, who had just won consecutive Super Bowls before the WFL's snagging of three of their star players. This changed the course of NFL history, by opening the door to dominance by two other AFC teams, the Steelers and the Raiders, during the second half of the 1970s.
While by no means the pioneer of "singular" team nicknames, which had been used by some college and professional sports teams since the 19th century, the quantity of them in a single league ("Fire", "Sun", "Bell", "Storm", "Steamer", "Thunder", "Express") was rare in professional sports at the time, and was a distinguishing mark of the league.
The WFL also arguably had an impact on locations of other professional football teams: from the NFL, Hawaii hosted the Pro Bowl from 1980 through 2009, Jacksonville got the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, Charlotte received the Carolina Panthers in the same year, and Houston's expansion franchise, the Texans, revived the name of the WFL team in 2002. Though the WFL's Toronto establishment failed due to Canadian resistance, the Buffalo Bills (with Canadian backing and special conditions) are playing occasional home games in Toronto as of 2008, and the league's original intent to expand the game globally is being partially fulfilled by the NFL International Series. Other cities became regular stops for franchises in other leagues:
The NFL's Houston Texans revived the name of the WFL's franchise for that city; "Texans" has also been used by an NFL Dallas team in 1952 – the remnants of which became the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, by an AFL Dallas team in the early 1960s – who became the Kansas City Chiefs, by an arena football team in Dallas in the early 1990s, and by a CFL San Antonio team for one year in the 1990s. There is also a Major League Soccer team called the Chicago Fire, and there are/were also NBA teams called the Memphis Grizzlies (2001–present) and Charlotte Hornets (1988–2002) (although the nickname "Hornets" for minor league baseball teams in Charlotte long precedes the WFL entry, and the "Grizzlies" name for the Memphis NBA team was selected when the franchise was still in Vancouver). The Jacksonville Sharks name was later revived for a team in the 2010 revival of the Arena Football League.
The American Football Association was conceived as a successor to the WFL, and in some newspapers was even referred to as the "New WFL." Many of the AFA teams revived, with slight alterations, the names of WFL teams that had resided in respective cities, and several of the AFA's key personnel had previously served in similar capacities with WFL teams.
The league also had some significantly negative long-term impacts for the lower levels of professional football. Its arrival resulted in the end of the ACFL and SFL, effectively killing minor-league professional football in the United States until AFA's formation in 1979.
Several NFL players signed contracts, or in some cases, future contracts with teams in the World Football League. In the case of a future contract, this was when a player entering the final years of a contract with an NFL team would sign a contract with a WFL team that goes into effect the moment the player's obligation with his NFL club is finished. Each signing is broken down by team, said players previous NFL club, and year player signed a contract. Just because a player signed doesn't mean he ever played for that team. L. C. Greenwood, for instance, never played a down of football for Birmingham. No one shown with a date after 1975 ever actually played for the WFL team listed due to the league's insolvency as of that year. (Note that the two Mike Taylors listed below are two different players.)
Many other players jumped as well. Dallas running back Duane Thomas signed with the Hawaiians in 1975 after being released by the Washington Redskins. Longtime Cleveland Browns running back Leroy Kelly signed with Chicago. Other players joined the WFL despite being drafted by NFL squads, such as quarterback Danny White, who signed with Memphis before eventually joining the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.
The league's only national television contract was with the TVS Television Network, a syndicator of American sports programming. Merle Harmon and Alex Hawkins served as the announcers TVS' Thursday Night Game. Guest announcers were often brought into the booth including Paul Hornung, George Plimpton, Alex Karras, and McLean Stevenson.
According to TVS president Eddie Einhorn, the games actually got decent ratings at first. However, affiliates started bailing out after the Philadelphia and Jacksonville free-ticket scandals, a trickle that became a flood after two teams moved in the middle of the season and two more folded altogether. By the time of the World Bowl, the games were struggling to achieve Nielsen ratings above 2.0, and TVS found it nearly impossible to sell advertising. Despite the losses, Einhorn was actually willing to stick it out until Hemmeter announced the Winds were going to try to sign Namath. Einhorn told Hemmeter that the league had effectively bet its whole credibility on Namath coming to Chicago, and none of TVS' affiliates would commit to broadcasting the 1975 season unless Namath signed with the Winds. When he didn't, the WFL was left without a national television contract.
Local affiliates provided most of the television and radio coverage throughout the WFL existence. Notable local announcers include John Sterling (New York Stars/Charlotte Hornets television), Spencer Ross (New York Stars radio), Bob Sheppard (New York Stars PA), Mike Patrick (Jacksonville Sharks), Larry King (Shreveport Steamer), Larry Matson (Birmingham Americans/Birmingham Vulcans), Fred Sington (Birmingham Americans/Birmingham Vulcans) and Eddie Doucette and Vince Lloyd (Chicago Fire radio and TV respectively).
Had the WFL come into existence a few years later, the league might have succeeded, but the league predated the vast expansion of cable television and sports networks spearheaded by the birth of ESPN in 1979. The money infused by a national television contract with a major network and the national interest that game telecasts might have made all the difference for the fledgling league.
The WFL had several important rules differences from the National Football League of that era, and many were eventually adopted by the older league:
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