The Sports Lounge presents… Lost Leagues: The WFL

 

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The World Football League, or WFL was created in 1973 and set out with the purpose to bring American football to a worldwide audience. The league was started by Gary Davidson, a man who helped previously helped start the ABA and the World Hockey Association. He gained moderate success with these two leagues by having some of the teams enter into the already established NBA and NHL and hoped for at least the same with the WFL.

He got a group of investors to help put his vision in place and was set for a 1975 inaugural season. However, rumors of another upstart league and a possible labor strike in the NFL made Davidson push up the league’s first season to 1974. This rush may have been the first mistake to the eventual downfall of the WFL. However, despite the league’s inevitable future, the WFL was set to begin and created a buzz with current NFL players.

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At the time, NFL players were the lowest-paid athletes in all four major North American sports. The WFL capitalized on having the ability to pay its players more. This led to a few major names jumping from the NFL to the WFL, including Larry Csonka, John Gilliam, Ken Stabler, and Daryle Lamonica. While the WFL was now able to gain noteworthy, established stars, the high-priced contracts can also be attributed to the league’s early demise.

But signs of failure were glaring even in the first season. The Jacksonville and Detroit franchises folded after 14 games in a 20 game season.The Houston Texans moved to Shreveport and became the Steamer. The New York Stars left for Charlotte to become the Stars and then the Hornets. And the Chicago franchise forfeited its last game of the season. However, the season rolled on and the playoffs were set. Sort of.

The  league had three divisions and the top two in each would make the playoffs. And the two teams with the overall best records would get byes while the other four would play. The Birmingham Americans and Memphis Southmen gained the bye week while The Hawaiians would play the Southern California Sun and the Charlotte Hornets would play the Florida Blazers. But Charlotte would drop out due to financial difficulties and would be replaced by the Philadelphia Bell.

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The Hawaiians and Blazers would advance out of the quarterfinal round to play in the semifinals. In the semis, the Blazers would defeat the Southmen and the Americans beat the Hawaiians to set up the first World Bowl. The championship game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham in early December. The Americans won by a score of 22-21. The WFL had made it through its first season. But the season would not end without one more dark moment. At the championship game, a $10,000 prize for the league’s MVP was brought out to be split between three players. But after the ceremonies, the locker room of the Americans was raided and all assets were taken to collect on the team’s debt.

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If the first season was the “nail in the coffin” of the WFL, then the second season lowered the coffin in the ground.

Despite attempts at improving the league, including getting a new commissioner and shortening the season from 20 to 18 games, the second WFL season was an utter failure. The league ceased operations after 12 weeks and the WFL did not get the chance to crown new champions at World Bowl II. The Birmingham Vulcans, the new team to replace the defending champion Americans, finished the season with the best winning percentage at 9-3.

Despite its downfall, the WFL did leave some lasting affects on the football world. Homegrown stars such as Danny White and Vince Papale went on to have an NFL career. Also, many of the cities that the WFL had teams in, such as Jacksonville, Memphis, and San Antonio, later went on to have franchises in other leagues. The WFL spread football across the smaller markets in the US but it’s goal of spreading the sport worldwide failed as the farthest team from mainland North America was The Hawaiians.

The WFL succeeded in very little as a league and failed in a lot. But what the WFL did was give football fans more of the sport they love. Despite how bad it may have been at times, it was more football for fans to sink their teeth into. And sometimes in today’s world, I wish there was more football to enjoy. I know I would give it a shot.

Daryl Karpinski Jr.

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