By Scott Adamson
Players went unpaid for months.
The champions had their equipment seized immediately after winning the league title game.
From a business standpoint it was one of the greatest financial disasters in sports history, with the bad days far outweighing the good.
But on October 2, 1973, all was right with the world – or at least the World Football League. That was the date the WFL was officially announced, and it certainly sounded like a big league with big plans.
Just three years after the NFL-AFL merger created a pro football monopoly, this new circuit was determined to start another arms race. Franchises scattered across the globe featuring rosters brimming with top talent were promised by founder Gary Davidson.
“We are forming a new league which will be a second major football league,” Davidson told United Press International. “I’ve never started a minor league in my life.”
As news leaked on October 1 it was reported by unnamed sources that London, Tokyo, Mexico City and a city in Germany might be among the first wave of franchises. Davidson, however, said the six charter cities would be Los Angeles-Anaheim, New York, Honolulu, Tampa, Tokyo and Toronto. Davidson – who had a hand in the formation of both the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association – would own the Southern California entry.
New York was snatched up by New England Whalers and Boston Celtics owner Bob Schmertz; Cleveland Indians, Crusaders and Cavaliers owner Nick Mileti was to guide Tampa; Winnipeg Jets owner Ben Hatskin was awarded the Honolulu franchise; WHA director of personnel Steve Arnold claimed the Tokyo entry; and Toronto Toros owner John Bassett backed Toronto with his money.
The franchise fee was $250,000.
“As it stands now, I don’t know the exact number of interested parties involved, but we’ve been talking to 20 or 30 groups from Osaka, Japan, all the way to Rome,” Davidson said. “There’s a little bit of travel problems, though, so we’ll probably limit ourselves to Europe or Asia the first year.”
Anywhere from 12 to 15 teams were planned for the 1974 launch date. Chicago, London, Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Houston, Mexico City, Memphis, Norfolk/Richmond, Birmingham and Charlotte were set to be on the short list of franchises set to join the original six.
Davidson said all the owners would be financial heavy hitters. And while they wouldn’t entice NFL players to break their contracts, they’d be willing to open up the bank account to those interested in making the jump.
“When you take on the NFL, you have to be pretty well supported,” Davidson said. “We’ve got some very strong owners. We feel there are a number of people who would like to increase their income. For some of the guys in the NFL who feel they’re being paid less than they’re worth, we’ll try to balance out the inequities.”
The NFL certainly didn’t want any real competition, especially after ending their war with the AFL. That merger saw the circuit add 10 cities, but only one (New York) that also had an NFL franchise. Aside from a global presence, the new league was planning to go head-to-head with the NFL in several metropolises.
“I know so little about the WFL,” NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle told UPI. “I only know what I read. There isn’t much we can do except keep ourselves strong. They seem interested in present NFL cities and the big-city markets.”
In December of that year Davidson said his league’s first draft would target pros, followed by a college draft.
“During our professional draft, we’ll select players now in the National Football League, the Canadian Football League and semi-pro professional leagues,” he said. “All players drafted will be on negotiation lists for those teams drafting them even though they may not now be eligible to sign with the World Football League.”
While there were some high profile signings, ultimately there was no global footprint. In fact, Bassett was under so much pressure from the Canadian government – which threatened to grant the Canadian Football League a pro football monopoly – the Toronto Northmen moved to the United States and became the Memphis Southmen.
Many of the original ownership groups fell to the wayside as well, and teams placed in major markets (New York, Anaheim, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Houston) had trouble making a public relations dent against their NFL counterparts.
The New York Stars, which had hoped to play at Yankee Stadium, wound up at tiny Downing Stadium – hardly a palatial venue for the biggest city in the league.
Obviously, much had changed from October 2, 1973 to July 10, 1974, when the World Football League began play. And the epilogue, of course, is an epitaph written in red ink.
Regardless, the concept was terrific – a new rival to the NFL, American football extended beyond American shores, and college stars getting to choose where to play for pay.
Those road trips from Tampa to Tokyo would’ve been a bear, though.
You can find more from Scott regarding alternative football at Adamsonmedia.com