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World Football League

The World Football League was an 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.

History

Gary L. Davidson was the driving force behind the WFL. He had helped start the marginally successful American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, in which some of their teams survived long enough to enter the established basketball and hockey leagues. His World Football League did not survive against the NFL, much less bring any surviving teams into it.

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 Memphis Southmen, 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 49'ers 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.

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.

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 29th (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. 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. (Ironically, 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. There were stories of Portland Storm players being fed by local citizens, and of the Charlotte Hornets having their uniforms impounded for not paying a laundry bill from the time the team was located in New York. The Florida Blazers players reportedly survived on McDonald's meal vouchers.

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 equalizer 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, president 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 renamed 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 effort in signing 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. Although the NFL expanded in 1976, that expansion had been planned before the WFL's first season.

Teams

1974 Season

W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT= Winning Percentage

Eastern Division
Team W L T PCT
Florida Blazers 14 6 0 .700
Charlotte Hornets 10 10 0 .500
Philadelphia Bell 9 11 0 .450
Jacksonville Sharks 4 10 0 .286
Central Division
Team W L T PCT
Memphis Southmen 17 3 0 .850
Birmingham Americans 15 5 0 .750
Chicago Fire 7 13 0 .350
Detroit Wheels 1 13 0 .071
Western Division
Team W L T PCT
Southern California Sun 13 7 0 .650
The Hawaiians 9 11 0 .450
Portland Storm 7 12 1 .375
Shreveport Steamer 7 12 1 .375

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 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.

1974 Playoffs

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.

Quarterfinals

Hawaiians defeated the Southern California Sun, 32-14 (@ Anaheim, California on Wednesday, November 20,1974)

Florida Blazers defeated Philadelphia Bell, 18-3 (@ Orlando, Florida on Thursday, November 21, 1974)

Semifinals

Birmingham Americans defated The Hawaiians, 22-19 (@ Birmingham, Alabama on Wednesday, November 27, 1974)

Florida Blazers defeated Memphis Southmen, 18-15 (@ Memphis, Tennessee on Friday, November 29, 1974)

World Bowl

Birmingham Americans 22, Florida Blazers 21 (@ Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday, December 5, 1974)

1975 season

W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT= Winning Percentage

Eastern Division
Team W L T PCT
Birmingham Vulcans 9 3 0 .750
Memphis Southmen 7 4 0 .636
Charlotte Hornets 6 5 0 .545
Jacksonville Express 6 5 0 .545
Philadelphia Bell 4 7 0 .364
Western Division
Team W L T PCT
Southern California Sun 7 5 0 .583
San Antonio Wings 7 6 0 .538
Shreveport Steamer 5 7 0 .417
The Hawaiians 4 7 0 .364
Portland Thunder 4 7 0 .364
Chicago Winds 1 4 0 .200

  • Birmingham was declared the 1975 champions at the time the league folded.

Rules

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. 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).
  • 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 "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," obstensibly named for its inventor. This was a single stick, roughly ten feet tall, 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.)

Legacy

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, is remembered for producing a number of coaches who would find success in the NFL: notably Jack Pardee, Lindy Infante, and Marty Schottenheimer. 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 NFL's Houston Texans revived the name of the WFL's franchise for that city (although "Texans" was 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, 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).

Popular Monday Night Football announcer Alex Karras began his career as a guest broadcaster for WFL games on the TVS Network.

See also

External links

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