The World Football League was a short-lived American football league that played in 1974 and part of 1975. Although this pro grid circuit'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 partway into 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 was originally created by 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 football.
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.
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 sports. Davidson's league garnered major news 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 3-player deal in sports, an astounding US$3.5 million to start in 1975. The pact was a guaranteed, personal services contract, so the three would be paid even if the WFL did not survive its first season.
Immediately, the NFL took notice as did its 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 would end 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 stars and regulars 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 players with the prospect of playing in a "major" league. Both leagues were forced to fold.
Playing a 20-game regular season schedule in 1974 – six games longer than the NFL's then 14-game season – the WFL staged no exhibition games (although its teams did participate in preseason scrimmages). The season was to begin on Wednesday, July 10 and ended 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. For one thing, 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.
As was common with many upstart leagues, the WFL's intended lineup of teams changed several times before it 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 it became the Memphis Southmen.
The original schedule called for a four-team playoff, with semifinal playoffs 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 of 1960, averaging just under 43,000 a game. The box office numbers proved to be the beginning of the WFL's undoing. In Jacksonville, the Sharks admitted that 44,000 tickets were giveaways. The Philadelphia Bell whose first two home games totaled 120,000 fans, told the press that over 100,000 had been sold for almost nothing. Presumably the giveaways were intended in part to pique the public's curiosity and interest, but the attempt was unsuccessful. 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.
By September, the barely one-year old league had bottomed out when two franchises relocated. The New York Stars relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina as the Charlotte Hornets, and the Houston Texans, the first WFL team to relocate in mid-season, moved to Shreveport, Louisiana as the Shreveport Steamer. On top of this, the aforementioned Wheels briefly moved for one game to London, Ontario (this time with nary a complaint from Canadian officials), and then became a traveling team for the next six weeks. In October, the league pulled the plug on the Detroit Wheels and the Jacksonville 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. It would not be until February 2005 that the city would host its first championship pro football game, Super Bowl XXXIX.)
Reports of financial hardship abounded. Most of the teams were badly undercapitalized (notable exceptions being Birmingham, Memphis, Southern California and the Hawaiians), despite league officials' bold plans. For instance, the Portland Storm's players were reportedly being fed by sympathetic local fans. The Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for not paying a laundry bill from the time the team was located in New York, and were forced to miss the playoffs because they couldn't afford to travel to Orlando for their first-round game. The Florida Blazers weren't paid for the last three months of the season, and reportedly survived on McDonald's meal vouchers. Davidson resigned as commissioner by the end of October 1974, Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter was named the new commissioner a month later.
Late in the year, the league announced that it was going to award its MVP a cash prize 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.
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 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".)
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, and some new owners with new names. 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; its 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.
The league changed its 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. 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, and the Chicago Winds made an offer to aging Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath, who seriously considered the offer before refusing and resigning with the New York Jets. The embarrassing rejection by Namath, after they had invested so much in the effort to sign him, seriously hurt the Winds, who folded five weeks into the season. Shortly afterward, the entire league shut down and the Birmingham Vulcans, with a league best record of 9-3 were awarded the league championship.
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 its own, more famous antitrust suit against the NFL in 1986). Although the NFL expanded in 1976, that expansion had been planned before the WFL's first season.
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 remainder 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 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 ownership backing and special conditions) are playing home games in Toronto as of 2008. Other cities became regular stops for franchises in other leagues:
- Memphis hosted the Showboats of the USFL from 1983 to 1985, the Mad Dogs of the CFL in 1995, and the XFL's Maniax in 2001. The NFL also used Memphis as a temporary home for the Tennessee Oilers in 1997 before their stadium in Nashville was completed.
- Birmingham hosted the Stallions of the USFL, the Fire of the WLAF from 1991 to 1992, Barracudas of the CFL in 1995, and the Thunderbolts of the XFL in 2001.
- Orlando hosted the Renegades of the USFL, Thunder of the WLAF, Rage of the XFL and the Tuskers of the UFL.
- Shreveport later hosted the Pirates of the CFL in 1994 and 1995.
- Jacksonville hosted the Bulls of the USFL before the Jaguars franchise was awarded.
- Baltimore had an NFL team (the Colts) at the time of the WFL, but after their departure the Stars of the USFL and the Stallions of the CFL played in the city.
- San Antonio later hosted the Gunslingers of the USFL, the Riders of the WLAF, the Texans of the CFL, the Matadors of the SFL, and four home games for the New Orleans Saints during their 2005 "road season", in which the Saints had to abandon their usual stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, due to damage from Hurricane Katrina. (San Antonio has also hosted NFL exhibition games.)
- Southern California hosted the Express of the USFL, the Xtreme of the XFL, the Dragons of the SFL and will host an as-yet-unnamed franchise in the UFL if that league makes it to the 2010 season.
- New York–New Jersey hosted the Generals of the USFL, the Knights of the WLAF, the Hitmen of the XFL, and the Sentinels in the UFL.
- Chicago hosted the Blitz of the USFL and the Enforcers of the XFL.
- Detroit later hosted the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, and was targeted as a possibility for XFL expansion before the XFL folded.
- Portland later hosted the Breakers of the USFL and served as the launching point for the CFL USA initiative with an exhibition game in June 1992, though it never received a CFL team.
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, 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.
Television and radio
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. TVS would not renew its WFL contract in 1975 and the league would not be able to reach a broadcast deal with any other network.
Local affiliates provide 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 after it did, the league might have succeeded. The league predated the vast expansion of cable television and sports networks by only a few years. The money infused by a national television contract with a major network and the national interest that game telecasts would probably have generated might have made all the difference for the fledgling league.
The league also had some significantly negative long-term impacts: when its actions resulted in the end of the Atlantic Coast Football League, it effectively ended minor-league professional football in the United States.
W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT= Winning Percentage
|Southern California Sun||13||7||0||.650|
Notes: (1) Jacksonville and Detroit folded after 14 games; each week thereafter, the teams that had games against those teams played each other. (2) Shreveport Steamer began the season as Houston Texans. (3) Charlotte Hornets began season as New York Stars; upon moving to Charlotte, played one game as Charlotte Stars, and remaining games as Hornets. (4) Chicago forfeited its 20th game to Philadelphia, 2-0.
In the original WFL schedule, the three division champions plus one wild-card were to qualify, culminating in a "World Bowl" on the evening after Thanksgiving (at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.). Then, with financial problems mounting, it was announced that (1) the team with the best record would be declared the champion; (2) Three teams (Memphis, Birmingham, and Florida) would play-off (thus leaving West champ Southern California out); (3) Eight of the remaining 10 teams would qualify; and, finally, (4) the top two teams in each division would qualify, seeded entirely by won-lost record. This last format was followed, except that Charlotte said it couldn't participate due to a lack of funds, resulting in Philadelphia being selected as the East's second qualifier.
1974 All-WFL Team
Head Coach: Jack Pardee, Florida Blazers (TSN, P&C)
Tri-MVPs: Tony Adams, Southern California, J.J. Jennings, Memphis, and Tommy Reamon, Florida.
Key: PC = voted on by players and coaches of the WFL; TSN = selection by The Sporting News
W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT= Winning Percentage
|Southern California Sun||7||5||0||.583|
|San Antonio Wings||7||6||0||.538|
- Birmingham was declared the 1975 champions at the time the league folded.
- Birmingham Americans 1974/Birmingham Vulcans 1975
- Chicago Fire 1974/Chicago Winds 1975
- Detroit Wheels 1974
- Washington-Baltimore Ambassadors/ Virginia Ambassadors/Florida Blazers 1974/San Antonio Wings 1975
- (Honolulu) The Hawaiians 1974–75
- Houston Texans 1974/Shreveport Steamer 1974–75
- Jacksonville Sharks 1974/Jacksonville Express 1975
- Memphis Southmen (had started out as the Toronto Northmen, but moved to Memphis, Tennessee before the start of the season) 1974–1975/ Memphis Grizzlies 1975 ("official" team change name to Grizzlies after league folded in attempt to join the NFL).
- Boston Bulls/New York Stars 1974/Charlotte Stars 1974/Charlotte Hornets 1974–75
- Philadelphia Bell 1974–75
- Portland Storm 1974/Portland Thunder 1975
- Southern California Sun 1974–75
The WFL had several important rules differences from the National Football League of that era, and many were eventually adopted by the older league:
- Touchdowns were worth 7 points, instead of 6.
- Conversions were called "Action Points" and could only be scored via a run or pass play (as opposed to by kick as in other football leagues), and were worth one point. The ball was placed on the five yard line for an Action Point. This rule was a revival of a 1968 preseason experiment by the NFL and American Football League. The XFL employed a similar rule 27 years later.
- Kickoffs were from the 30-yard line instead of the 40. Before 1974, NFL teams kicked off from the 40; starting in 1974, the NFL moved its kickoffs back to the 35, and twenty years later, the kickoff line was pushed back to the 30.
- Receivers needed only one foot in bounds for a legal pass reception, instead of two feet in the NFL then and now. College and high school football, the Arena Football League, and the CFL have always used the one-foot rule.
- Bump-and-run pass coverage was outlawed once a receiver was 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The NFL later adopted this rule, with a 5-yard bump zone.
- The goalposts were placed at the end line (the back of the end zone). At that time, college football goalposts were at the end line, but the NFL had its goalposts at the goal line from 1933 through 1973. Starting with the 1974 season, the NFL also moved its posts back to the end line.
- Missed field goals were returned to the line of scrimmage or the 20-yard line, whichever was farther from the goal line. The NFL also adopted this rule for its 1974 season, then replaced the line of scrimmage with the point of the kick in 1994. Before this rule, missed field goals were (if unreturned) touchbacks, with the ball placed at the 20-yard line. U.S. college football later adopted this rule, but left the point as the line of scrimmage rather than the point of the placement.
- A player in motion was allowed to move toward the line of scrimmage before the snap, as long as he was behind the line of scrimmage at the snap. This rule had never been used at any level of outdoor American football, but was (and still is) part of Canadian football. This rule is used in the Arena Football League and was used in the XFL.
- Punt returners were prohibited from using the fair catch, although the covering team could not come within 5 yards of the kick returner until he caught the ball. This rule also came from Canadian football, which still uses it, as does Arena football with kickoffs and missed field goals. The XFL also used the so-called "halo rule".
- Penalties for offensive holding and ineligible receiver downfield were 10 yards, instead of 15. Several years later, these became 10-yard penalties at all levels of football. Still later, the ineligible receiver penalty was changed to 5 yards (with loss of down).
- The WFL's original overtime system was like nothing used in any form of American football before or since; it was more similar to the system long used in international soccer. Overtime in the regular season was one fixed 15-minute period, divided into two halves of 7½ minutes, each starting with a kickoff by one of the teams. The complete overtime was always played; there was no "sudden death" feature. In 1975, the WFL changed its overtime to the 15-minute sudden-death period, which the NFL adopted in 1974 and still uses today.
- Limited (or no) pre-season games. In 1974 and 1975, NFL teams played six pre-season games and 14 regular-season games (which was changed in 1978 to the current four pre-season and 16 regular-season games). In contrast, the WFL's 1974 schedule called for 20 regular-season games and no pre-season games; in 1975, it was 18 regular-season games and two pre-season games.
- Summertime football. The NFL's regular season started on September 15 in 1974 and on September 21 in 1975; the WFL's regular season started on July 10 in 1974 and on July 26 in 1975 (with the 1975 pre-season starting on July 5). The Canadian Football League, which must contend with colder winters than American leagues, has always played during the summer with a similar schedule.
- Weeknight football (1974). While NFL games were played mostly on Sundays and a game on Monday Night, the WFL's 1974 schedule called for Wednesday night football (with a Thursday night national TV game). This scheduling format was abandoned in 1975. The featured Thursday night game was later adopted as "Thursday Night Football" by the NFL in 2006.
- The "Dickerod". Instead of using a ten-yard chain strung between two sticks for measuring first down yardage, the WFL used a device called the "Dickerod," ostensibly named for its inventor. This was a single stick, 90 inches long, mounted on a base which allowed it to pivot from side to side. The stick was swung down to ground level when a first down was being set, and a marker that slid along the shaft was fixed in place to line up with the nearest gridiron line (the major yard lines spaced every five yards). When that was set, the stick was swung back to the upright position. When a measurement was needed by the officials, the Dickerod was brought out to the ball position, the shaft swung down to ground level, the marker lined up with the nearest gridiron line, and the measurement was taken. (In all other forms of football today, a similar marker is clipped to the standard ten-yard chain, also lining up with a gridiron line.)
- Gary L. Davidson 1974
- Christopher Hemmeter 1974-75
Minor league rebirth
In 2007 the World Football League was purchased by Chip Pierce of Beaumont, Texas. The league was brought back to life as a minor league system that does not compete with the NFL, but gives players of a higher talent level than that of the many players involved in semi-pro football the opportunity to showcase their skills. Players like Willie Ponder who have exited the NFL but have aspirations of returning and players like Kejuan Jones or Prentiss Elliot who are looking to get a shot to make in the NFL. At the end of the season SiteInDeX, Inc. CEO negotiated to purchase the WFL from Mr. Pierce. The World Football League has been operating as a minor league system since 2008.
This inaugural rebirth season of the WFL as a minor league system had 6 teams in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. World Bowl II (continuing the number from the original league) was held at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, LA. The World Bowl matched the Oklahoma Thunder against the Austin Gamebreakers. The Thunder prevailed making them the first champion of the WFL in the minor league era. The Thunder also won WFL's World Bowl III (vs. Dallas Diesel) in 2009 and defeated the Des Moines Blaze in the World Bowl IV on July 31, 2010, in Tulsa. The Thunder have won all 40 of their games in WFL history.
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